Pope Wins Muslim Applause in Mideast: But Some Dynamics of Papal Trip Reinforce Catholic/Jewish Tensions
Allen, John L., Jr., National Catholic Reporter
After every papal trip, but especially the high-wire act that Benedict XVI performed May 8-15 in Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, the obvious question is: How did the pope do? Putting things that way, however, overlooks an important point, which is that it's not just the pope who had something to gain or lose.
The bully pulpit of the papacy, the institutional support of the Vatican, and the sympathy of more than a billion Catholics worldwide are hardly prizes to be sneezed at. Thus, another way to frame analysis is: How did Benedict's hosts do?
On this trip, there were at least seven groups with something on the line: Muslims, Jews, Israelis, Palestinians, Arab Christians, Hebrew-speaking Christians, and the other Christian churches of the Holy Land.
While the pope tried to offer something for everyone, the clear winners at trip's end seemed the Muslims and the Palestinians. It's an especially ironic result, given that beforehand, many Palestinian Christians not-so-quietly grumbled that the Vatican was bending over backwards to accommodate Israeli sensitivities.
Yet in the end, the Palestinians could tout repeated endorsements of the "two-state solution" and sharp criticism of the Israeli security wall. Meanwhile, acerbic reaction in some Jewish circles to Benedict's speech at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial left some of the pope's men wondering, "Will anything we say or do ever be enough?"
The Vatican's favorite Muslim
Benedict's outreach to Muslims began in Jordan, where he repeatedly called for building bridges. The highpoint came with his visit to the Hussein bin-Talal Mosque in Amman, only the third time a pope has entered an Islamic place of worship.
During that visit, Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, the king's cousin and a global leader in interfaith relations, cemented his profile as the Vatican's favorite Muslim. Ghazi thanked Benedict for his expression of regret after a 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany, in which the pontiff quoted a Byzantine emperor linking Muhammad with violence. In effect, Ghazi declared the book on Regensburg closed.
Perhaps the only tense moment came in Jerusalem May 11, when local Sheikh Tayssir Attamimi hijacked an interfaith meeting to deliver an anti-Israeli diatribe, which a Vatican spokesperson denounced as "the negation of dialogue." Yet when the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Ahmad Husayn, made some of the same points the next day, but without the vitriol, the Vatican complimented him on his tone.
On the Muslim "street," Benedict's support for Palestinian sovereignty drew applause, as did his criticism of the West Bank wall--which he indeed called a "wall," and not the preferred Israeli term, "security barrier." At a Palestinian refugee camp that abuts the wall, the pope called the construction of such barriers in an interconnected world "tragic," and later said the wall was "one of the saddest sights" of the trip.
Arab commentators exuded enthusiasm. Bahrain's Gulf News said the pope offered "the best words possible," while Lebanon's Al Mustaqbal wrote that Benedict "perhaps did not completely cancel out Regensburg," but he certainly improved his profile. Saeb Erakat, a Palestinian negotiator, called Benedict's statements "a step, a huge step, in the right direction."
Impact on Catholic/Jewish relations appeared more mixed.
Benedict's visit came in the wake of controversy over a Holocaust-denying traditionalist bishop, Richard Williamson. The pontiff started mending fences during his arrival remarks in Tel Aviv, recalling the 6 million Jews killed. At the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem the same day, Benedict said the suffering of Holocaust victims must "never be denied, belittled or forgotten."
Nonetheless, the Yad Vashem speech drew mixed reviews, mostly for what the pope didn't say: No reference to Christian anti-Semitism; no reflection as a German who saw the rise of National Socialism; no regret for the Williamson affair. …