Magazine article The Christian Century

Negotiating the Holy Land

Magazine article The Christian Century

Negotiating the Holy Land

Article excerpt

POPE JOHN PAUL II's pilgrimage to the Holy Land March 20-25 reflected the region's difficult political and religious terrain. On March 22, journeying within the Autonomous Palestinian Territories, he celebrated mass in Bethlehem, the place where Christians believe Jesus was born 2,000 years ago. The following day the pope visited Jerusalem's Yad Vashem, the principal Israeli monument to those who perished in the Holocaust, and spoke out in remembrance of the 6 million Jewish Holocaust victims, praying that a new relationship between Christians and Jews would be born from "sorrow over this tragedy."

In Bethlehem John Paul deplored the present day "torment" of the Palestinian people. "Peace for the Palestinian people! Peace for all the peoples of the region!" the pope exclaimed. "No one can ignore how much the Palestinian people have had to surfer in recent decades. Your torment is before the eyes of the world. And it has gone on too long."

Later in the day, John Paul made a brief visit to the Dehaisheh refugee camp run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Sitting next to Palestinian National Authority President Yasir Arafat in the crowded courtyard of a school, the pope heard speakers warn that there can be no peace in the Middle East until Palestinian refugees, displaced persons and emigres are granted "the right of return."

According to UNRWA, 3.3 million Palestinians live in 69 refugee camps scattered throughout the Middle East, some of which date to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Tens of thousands of other refugees have emigrated throughout the Middle East and to other parts of the world. The "right of return" is a key issue in the negotiations that Palestinians and Israelis resumed in Washington March 21 in an effort to reach the comprehensive settlement that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has pledged to reach by September. The pontiff called for a "resolute effort" to resolve the plight of the refugees.

On his arrival at the Bethlehem heliport in an Israeli military helicopter, the pope was offered a bowl of Palestinian earth to kiss, a gesture normally reserved for his first visit to a country. Although the Palestinians have not yet achieved that status, John Paul, a longtime supporter of Palestinian statehood, kissed the earth.

Although the question of Palestinian self-determination and the fate of the Palestinian refugees are highly charged political issues, the pope was careful to put them in a humanitarian context. "I am fully aware of the great challenges facing the Palestinian Authority and people in every field of economic and cultural development," he told Arafat. "In a particular way my prayers are with those Palestinians--Muslim and Christian--who are still without a home of their own, their proper place in society and the possibility of a normal working life. My hope is that my visit today to the Dehaisheh Refugee Camp will serve to remind the international community that decisive action is needed to improve the situation of the Palestinian people."

The next day's activities took the pope into a very different context. After praying at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem memorial on March 23, John Paul asked that there be no more hatred but only respect between Christianity and Judaism. …

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