Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to be the third pontiff to visit the Holy Land from 8 – 15 May, following in the footsteps of Paul VI in 1964 and John Paul II in 2000, on a mission officially described as a “pilgrimage” and one of “peace and reconciliation.”
However, the Pope will be stepping into “a diplomatic minefield,” where the Catholic highest spiritual authority will be unmercifully scrutinized by the protagonists of the one hundred year old Arab – Israeli conflict for the Holy Father’s every step, word and handshake, which would force him into the defensive in an impossible balancing act that will rule out any hope his presence is supposed to inspire, especially among the down-trodden Arabs of Palestine, whether those who are “Israelis” living as second class citizens since 1948 or those Palestinians living under the Israeli military occupation since 1967.
Even the pontiff’s own Catholic diminishing flock in the Holy Land seems in controversy over the timing and the itinerary of his pilgrimage. "We will ask him why he came, what he intends on saying … and why he isn't coming to Gaza," Father Manuel Mussalam, the pastor of the only Catholic church of about 300 believers in Gaza, out of 3000 Christians in the Israeli besieged Mediterranean strip, was quoted by AFP as asking. "We'll tell him that this is not the right moment to come and visit the holy places, while Jerusalem is occupied," Mussalam added.
In November 2006, long before Gaza Strip came under the control of the Islamic movement Hamas, which is cited as the casus belli for the Israeli latest three – week bloody and destructive war on Gaza as well as for the nine – year old Israeli military blockade of 1.5 million Palestinians since 2000, Father Mussalam described the situation there: “Gaza cannot sleep! The people are suffering unbelievably. They are hungry, thirsty, have no electricity or clean water. They are suffering constant bombardments and sonic booms from low flying aircraft… They have no income, no opportunities to get food and water from outside and no opportunities to secure money inside of Gaza. They have no hope and no love. These actions are War Crimes!"
Vindicating Mussalam’s statement, the World Bank reported on April 24 that a serious environmental threat is evolving in Gaza where only one tenth of water meets the world health standards, a fact that is responsible for a quarter of the disease cases, and creating a water crisis similar to that in Sudan and Congo.
Nonetheless, the Holy See is determined to rule out Gaza from the Pope’s itinerary. In a recent letter to the Vatican 40 prominent Christians from the occupied Palestinian territories appealed to the Holy See to add Gaza to his itinerary. They could not understand how the Pope has been to Auschwitz to pray for the people murdered there, “as a duty to truth and to those that suffered," as he said, but could not similarly heal the wounds of those who are still suffering in Gaza.
The Vatican cites security reasons, according to the spokesman of the Apostolic Nuncio to Israel, Father Peter Madros. Israel recently barred the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Antonio Franco, from Gaza. But security did not prevent Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General from visiting Gaza when the guns were still smoking, nor did it prevent Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, to name only a few.
The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Fouad Twal, in an interview provided by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land and published by Zenit.org on April 22, acknowledged that the Pope’s trip has undoubtedly a “political dimension”: “We mustn't fool ourselves: there is 100% a political dimension … everything will have a political connotation. Here we breathe politics, our oxygen is politics.” But Twal has three explanations. First, “it is difficult to find a good balance and to maintain it.” Second, “imagine the negative consequences it would have on the pilgrimage industry, if the Pope himself was afraid of coming on pilgrimage.” Third, “what should be done? Wait for better times … until the Palestinian question is resolved? I'm afraid that two or three Sovereign Pontiffs will pass before it is definitively settled.”
The three reasons Twal cited are shocking, but his conclusion devastates whatever hope the papal visit might inspire: “The more the Vatican is a friend of Israel, the more it will be able to draw profit,” otherwise, “we will all lose, we Christians and we Arabs”!
When His Holiness is to meet on April 14 with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has dispelled all hopes for even the resumption of a peace process, let alone peace, both by his on-record political platform as well as by the composition of his extreme right ruling coalition, and when he will meet with Israeli President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, the spiritual capital of Christianity and Islam which his Israeli hosts are determined to Judaise as theirs only eternal capital, and to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, the Islamic Al-Buraq Wall as the Jewish Western (Wailing) Wall of the Temple, and when Israel forces his protocol team to drop from the list of his Arab audience in Nazareth the Palestinian mayor of Sukhnin, Mazen Ghanaim, because he rallied against the Israeli war on Gaza, then the itinerary of his pilgrimage could be described as anything but being apolitically balanced when Gaza is ruled out.
In his Easter message on April 12, Benedict XVI noted the world food shortage, the financial turmoil, the old and new forms of poverty, the disturbing climate change, the violence and deprivation, “the ever present threat of terrorism,” to conclude that, “it is urgent to rediscover grounds for hope,” and urged his audience to spread the kind of hope that inspires courage to do good even when it costs dearly. But his oversight that did not make him mention military occupation and the long standing refugee problem emanating therefrom, as it is the case in Palestine, to where he is heading as a pilgrim, dispels any hope that he will say, let alone do, anything that would inspire hope.
Nicola Nasser is a veteran Arab journalist based in Bir Zeit, West Bank of the Israeli – occupied Palestinian territories.