The whirlwind visit to the Holy Land by the head of world Catholicism, Pope Francis, left commentators hyperventilating. The brief, two-day excursion was ram-jam full of symbolism, some of it seemingly contradictory.
After visiting Jordan, the Pope traveled to Bethlehem, pointedly referring to the area as the “state of Palestine.” He made an unscheduled stop at the security barrier, adjacent to graffiti reading “Pope we need some 1 to speak about Justice … Bethlehem look like Warsaw ghetto.” The Pope placed his forehead against the barrier and prayed, in an image most commonly associated with visitors to the Western Wall, a few kilometres away.
The Pope’s visit was emphatically billed as “strictly religious” and non-political, but, it appears, everything is political in this part of the world, most of all religion. The “state of Palestine” was festooned in posters of the pope conjoined with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Images abounded of Palestinian suffering parallel with images of the suffering of Jesus, from which some viewers might conclude that the same people who have for millennia borne the blame for the one incident are also solely responsible for the other. Of course, the Pope’s entourage was not responsible for Photoshopping done by Palestinian partisans. Yet, neither was the Pope’s time in Israel free from perceptions of politicization. He visited the tomb of Theodor Herzl, which must certainly have appeared to Palestinians as unambiguous as his reference to the “state of Palestine.”
The Pope invited Abbas and Israel’s President Shimon Peres to a prayer summit at the Vatican – an invitation both leaders accepted and which is to take place next week. Some commentators have noted that Peres is a figurehead who will not be directly involved in future peace negotiations and whose term is nearly at an end, but papal spokespeople noted that Francis and Peres have developed a cordial relationship and the event should not be seen as a snubbing of Abbas’ counterpart in peace talks, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The prayer summit is seen as an opportunity to recast religion as a unifying force in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, rather than the divisive force as which it is frequently perceived. The invitation is an interesting gambit, and an apparently overt move by the Pope to insert the Vatican back into the centre of global diplomacy where it sat for centuries. And while prayers for peace are always welcome, a mass prayer at the Vatican some months ago for peace in Syria seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Still, it can’t hurt.
Papal visits, in the age of 24-hour news, are highly visual and symbolic. Symbolism is powerful, particularly in scenarios of diplomatic complexity. But, by definition, symbolism lacks nuance. The Pope apparently attempted to please everybody, by paying homage to the national rights of both peoples. But while he voiced explicit hopes for an end to terrorism and for the right of Israelis to live in security – which, all ancillary issues aside, are the two pillars upon which eventual peaceful coexistence will stand – his symbolic efforts to please both sides are as likely to please no one. In this, Pope Francis is in good company with everyone else who has attempted to walk the impossible line of equanimity in this conflict.
Meanwhile, as attention was focused to the Middle East, events in Europe reflected a sadly repetitive history. As Pope Francis was incanting “Never again” at Yad Vashem and at a memorial to victims of terror, families were mourning the murders of four at a Jewish museum in Brussels. The Pope condemned the attack as a “criminal act of antisemitic hatred.” As well, the Pope’s travels partially eclipsed news of fringe extremist groups, some openly antisemitic, making significant gains in elections to the European parliament.
As Pope Francis returns to his home in the Vatican and prepares to welcome Abbas and Peres, there is no shortage of topics to pray about.