Will Benedict XVI Challenge Palestinian and Israeli Extremism?

Deal W. Hudson
May 7, 2009

An op-ed published in the New York Times on Tuesday by veteran Vatican reporter John L. Allen Jr. lists four ways Pope Benedict XVI can “move things forward in the Middle East.” He recommends the Holy Father endorse the two-state solution, call upon Palestinians to reject extremism, urge support for Holy Land Christians, and advise that Iran is included in regional discussions.

It’s easy to agree with all of Allen’s suggestions, in part, because he leaves out one of the most important – and most controversial – messages Benedict should consider sending: challenging Israel to reject its own extremism, specifically, the confiscation of Palestinian land and the building of settlements that is turning the West Bank into a series of enclosed “cantons.”

Every Israeli settlement creates an additional barrier and greater military presence on the West Bank. Along with the rise of Hamas, the Israeli settlements are the greatest obstacles to the two-state solution. This rapid acceleration of settlements is one of the “Ten Hard Facts Facing Benedict XVI in the Holy Land.”

I just returned from guiding a delegation of Catholic leaders on a Holy Land pilgrimage, and I agree with Allen that the pope’s visit could have a huge impact at a time when the situation has gone from bad to worse. The 21-day Gaza incursion, combined with the election of Benjamin Netanyahu, has virtually snuffed all hope on the West Bank for an end to the 40-year Israeli occupation.

Frankly, I was surprised that none of the Palestinian Christians I interviewed wanted Benedict to make this visit. When Pope John Paul II came in 2000, they expected a change for the better. Unfortunately, they’ve seen nothing of the sort; peace grows more and more remote as Israeli settlements, security walls, and fences reach further into Palestinian land.

The last thing Palestinian Christians want is for Benedict’s visit to be manipulated by the media as an affirmation of Israel’s present treatment of Palestinians, especially those Gazans who saw their land destroyed by Israeli bombers.

The same Christians I interviewed recommended that the pope visit Gaza. The area’s only Catholic priest, Msgr. Manuel Massalem, said recently that “this is not the right moment to come,” and he will ask the pope “why he came, what he intends on saying to the Christians, the Jews, the Muslims, and why he isn’t coming to Gaza.”

A few days ago in Jerusalem, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal ended any speculation about a possible visit to that shattered region. “The pope cannot go to Gaza. It was easier to bring Gaza to the pope,” he said and disclosed the fact that the Vatican had asked for 200 to 250 travel permits for Gazan Christians to participate in papal events.

At this time, there is still no word as to whether Israel has issued these permits, or where exactly the Gazans would join the Holy Father. The most likely place would be the Mass in Bethlehem on May 13.

For Israel to issue those travel permits would be of no small significance. One of the major complaints of Palestinian Christians is the restriction on travel that keeps them from visiting sacred sites. Many have never worshipped at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, traveled the Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa, or walked in the Garden of Gethsemane.

If Benedict challenges both Palestinian and Israeli extremism, it will send a strong message that the only solution is one that recognizes the legitimate rights of both the Abrahamic communities.

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