4 May 2009 0 Comments

Popeophobia hits Holy Land

By Matt Beynon Rees, on Global Post
JERUSALEM — If you happen to be in the Holy Land next week and you have a beef with the pope, get to the back of the line.

In Nazareth, where Pope Benedict XVI will say Mass on May 14, the Islamic Movement accuses the pontiff of insulting Islam in a 2006 speech and leaflets have been distributed in the town calling for violence against the pontiff. In Gaza, the small Christian community there is upset that he won’t visit them as a show of solidarity after the violence in January.

The Israeli security services say the popemobile isn’t safe enough and want to cocoon Benedict in an armored limo, where pilgrims won’t be able to see him. Refugees in a Bethlehem camp that Benedict plans to visit are setting up a platform for his appearance right in front of the tall concrete wall Israel has built around the town and camp leaders refuse to locate it somewhere with a less emotive backdrop.

The Catholic Church, too, has done its share of complaining in advance of the pope’s arrival in Israel May 11, insisting that the planned tour of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and museum, should bypass an exhibit that suggests Benedict’s predecessor, Pius XII, maintained a “neutral position” on the mass murder of Jews during World War II. The pope will pray at the memorial to victims of the Holocaust but won’t enter the museum.

To Father William Shomali, it all looks distressingly familiar.

Rector of the Latin Seminary in Beit Jala, a Christian village attached to Bethlehem, Shomali organized an interfaith meeting in Jerusalem during the visit of the previous pope, John Paul II, in March 2000. John Paul was the first pope to visit Rome’s main synagogue and also made a historic stop in a Damascus mosque. But his attempts at reconciliation couldn’t overcome the all-around nastiness of the Middle East.

At Notre Dame, a Catholic complex overlooking the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, Israel’s Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and the Palestinian Authority’s chief Islamic judge Taisir Tamimi refused to plant an olive tree with the pope because they didn’t want to shake hands with each other. Shomali had to ask John Paul to plant the symbol of peace on his own.

The public meeting that followed was notable for the image of John Paul hunched between Lau, who shifted uncomfortably in his seat, and a stony-faced Tamimi.

“They only talked about their own suffering,” Shomali said. “We need to get out of this victim mentality and recognize our own guilt, before there can be reconciliation.”

Since that meeting in 2000, Palestinians and Israelis have lived through five years of intifada violence and a devastating war in Gaza. It hasn’t made them any more willing to acknowledge their own guilt.

With that in mind, Benedict gamely plans to have another try.

On his first day in Jerusalem, he’ll return to Notre Dame for a meeting with Israel’s chief rabbis, a leading Muslim jurist, and heads of the Druze minority in Israel.

The message of such a meeting is clear. “His Holiness rejects denial of the Other,” says Bishop Munib Younan, head of the Lutheran Church in the Holy Land.

For Younan, the pope’s dual status as a religious figure and head of a state — the Vatican — gives his spiritual interventions a political element. That, he hopes, could reverse the disturbing politicization of religion in the Middle East.

“Politics and religion are intertwined,” he says. “We would just like to have religion lead politics, rather than the other way round.”

That could give an important shove to peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, as Christian leaders see it.

More immediately — and more likely perhaps — the pope will give a boost to the embattled Christian Arab community in Israel and the West Bank. In towns like Bethlehem and Nazareth, Christians used to be a majority, but now face hatred and sometimes violence from the growing Muslim population. Bishop Younan describes it as “Christianophobia,” in the face of which much of his congregation and many members of other denominations are emigrating to the U.S. or South America.

Of course, that might depend on whether Benedict can quell the “Popeophobia” circulating before his arrival

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