The Pope should make this his priority during his delicate Holy Land trip, says Denis MacEoin Next week Pope Benedict will visit the Holy Land, the third pope to do so, but only the second to make an official visit. Invited to Israel by President Shimon Peres, he will also set foot in Jordan and the West Bank, where it’s expected he will go to Bethlehem. Given the sacredness of the Christian sites in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth, it’s astonishing that so few popes have gone there since the setting up of the British mandate in 1920 or the establishment of Israel in 1948.
Pope Benedict could not travel to Jerusalem at a more difficult time. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has entered a very dark phase since Israel’s defensive assault on Gaza at the end of last year. That darkness has less to do with the region itself than with a swelling international hate-fest against Israel that is now growing into a frightening resurgence of anti-Semitism in many European countries. Everything the Pope says and does throughout his visit will be watched and weighed against an array of what will often be incoherent and disturbing attitudes and policies, not least the global Islamist and Left-wing call for Israel to be destroyed and, in more extreme versions, for the Jews there to be killed.
The Pope will go there as a man of peace, and he will take every opportunity to advocate peace in the region. But peace may not be the most important thing for him to urge. Nor will any exhortations he may make be enough to make the peace process go forward anyway. The 1988 Hamas Charter declares: “Initiatives, and so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences, are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement ... There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavours.” How do you, even if you are the Pope, talk peace to men like that, or to mothers who dress their sons in suicide belts?
Whether Aeschylus or Hiram Johnson said it first, many agree that “the first casualty of war is truth”. And that is nowhere truer than in the Middle East, where lies and outright fabrications have added greatly to an already rancorous debate. Worse than that, many have spread around the world along with any number of conspiracy theories, many of them echoes of Nazi propaganda. If the Pope is limited in what he can do to further peace, perhaps he can use his visit to speak out about these lies. Is not, after all, one of the several sins against the Holy Spirit “resisting or impugning the known truth”? Sadly, the Pope need look no further than within his own Church to see this sin repeated.
By now, everyone knows of Bishop Richard Williamson and his flagrant denial of the Holocaust, his claim that the Jews are the “enemies of Christ” and his belief that that obnoxious forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, really does describe an international conspiracy by the Jews to take control of the world. I hope that the Pope will visit the Holocaust memorial and museum at Vad Yashem in Jerusalem, and while there he must do two things. He must denounce Holocaust denial, not as an error in fact, but as a deadly sin against the human soul. And he must ask for something reciprocal from Israel: a recognition that Pope Pius XII has been much maligned but that in truth he helped to save the lives of many Jews.
The Pope must also address the widespread claim that Israel is an “apartheid state”. This also is both ludicrous and dangerous. There are no apartheid laws in Israel: Arabs are not excluded from restaurants, cinemas, concert halls, or swimming pools, but serve in parliament and on the supreme court. The claim is another vicious lie and, given the Church’s commitment to anti-racism, it is fitting for the Pope to expose the lie for what it is.
Passing beyond the lies (of which there are dozens more), an urgent matter on the Pope’s agenda must surely be the plight of Christians in the West Bank and Gaza. Harassed by militant Islamic groups, the Christian population there has been dwindling. In 1990, Christians made up 60 per cent of the population in Bethlehem; today, a mere 19 years later, they number just 20 per cent and are shrinking rapidly. Christians in the Palestinian territories have fallen in numbers from 15 per cent of the population in 1950 to less than one per cent today. Calls have been made for their extinction, and attacks are regularly made on institutions and individual Christians. More and more Christians pack their bags and flee. In Israel, their numbers have risen from 34,000 in 1948 to over 140,000 today. If the Pope does not speak out and make this an issue of global concern, the bombings, the beatings, and the intimidation will continue, and before very long the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem will be left to the tender mercies of Islamic Jihad.
There is one other thing Pope Benedict should consider doing before he leaves Israel. In the port city of Haifa, on the slopes of Mount Carmel stands a Unesco World Heritage Site made up of the gardens, shrines, and international headquarters of the Baha’i religion. It is a beautiful place, one of the loveliest on the Mediterranean coast. Israel is the only country in the Middle East where these places would be safe. Iran, a country that threatens to wipe Israel off the map, is the original home of the Baha’is, who form its largest religious minority. There the holiest Baha’i shrines have been bulldozed into rubble. Since the revolution, Baha’is have been imprisoned and executed, and made the objects of a severe persecution. If the Pope could stand in the gardens in Haifa and proclaim his abhorrence of all religious persecution, it would send out a firm message to bullies like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and those, like Hizbullah and Hamas, whom he controls.
There is a deeper message that the Pope is well situated to convey, which is that the truth is greater than the lie, and that there can be no peace while there is falsehood. Only when the Israelis and the Palestinians can engage in compete honesty with one another, and only when the deluded marchers walking on European streets chanting “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas” have their eyes opened to the enormous deceit that has been perpetrated on them will a real and lasting peace begin to grow in the Holy Land.
Dr Denis MacEoin is a former lecturer in Arabic and Islamic Studies, the author of several reports on radical Islam, and currently the editor-designate of an international journal, the Middle East Quarterly