Controversial Pope Benedict XVI is in the middle of a highly expected journey in Israel, where a heavy political and religious agenda is awaiting the spiritual leader of Catholicism. Going where no Pope has ever gone before – The Wall of Lamentations – Benedict is making some efforts in the domain of reconciliation and peace-building, whilst managing to keep his Jewish audience underwhelmed.

Benedict might be on a spiritual journey to the heart of monotheist religions, but there is no dissociating the Middle East’s history from its complex politics. The Pope’s childhood in the Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth) has been well documented and publicized; his appearance in Jerusalem has been expected from both the Israeli government and Jewish leaders, hoping to extract from the guiding light of the Roman Catholic Church words of importance regarding the Holocaust. It is on a more recent political agenda that the Pope decided to speak out, addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a peace-building perspective and calling Christians living in the region to act as mediators towards peace between the two populations.

Israel President Shimon Peres and Pope Benedict XVI visiting holy sites

Israel President Shimon Peres and Pope Benedict XVI visiting holy sites

Despite picking symbolism as his own weapon of persuasion – reflecting in silence at the Yad Vashem memorial, or climbing Mount Temple – most Israeli visitors and curious observers have claimed to be disappointed by the Pope’s weak address. Most wished he had addressed the issue of anti-semitism and the memory of the Holocaust in a tougher and stronger way, as never a German Pope had taken onto the task to call upon the collective memory of the diaspora and remind humanity of what led to the creation of Israel in 1958. Refusing to publicly mention his past, personal and perhaps buried under the responsibilities of his new function, Benedict XVI never avoided nor eluded the sensitive questions raised by a pilgrimage in the Middle East, but on the Israeli side, he failed to be convincing on the subject of christian-jewish reconciliation.

Where Benedict did shine, however, is in Palestine, where thousands of fellow christians expected his visit but were often blocked by Israeli security barrages, or even finding it impossible to cross the wall separating the communities in East Jerusalem. Surprisingly so, in a memorable speech given right next to the Wall, in the Aida camp, Benedict XVI called for the recognition of a Palestinian State, so the residents could have “a place that is theirs”. It could have easily been taken as provocation to the newly appointed Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs, Liebermann, a fervent opponent to a Palestinian state, if the Pope’s rhethoric wasn’t so ecumenical and universal in its approach to peace.  Next to Mahmoud Abbas, historical leader of the Palestinian authority, the Pope said: “I have seen the Waml that is intruding in your territories, separating neighbours and dividing families. Although walls are easily built, we know they do not always remain. They can be taken down.” It took a German Pope to remind the global population of the horrid degradation and humiliation that was the Berlin Wall, and the need for popular support in taking walls down, in promoting peace-building and reconciliation in territories torn by conflict and political interests.

Following the spirit of the recent UN resolutions Liebermann tried to fight,  Benedict called for the self-determination of people, the end of fratricide in the Middle East, and more importantly, gave a heart-warming call for hope. Ensuring Palestinians of his support, and that of the rest of the world, he told young men “not to fall in the desperate trap of violence”, not to heed “the vicious call of terrorism”.  Fully understanding what many nation leaders failed to grasp – that ethnopolitical terrorism often springs out of repression – Benedict called for mediation, negotiation, dialogue, and diversity, in a region that has known nothing but adversity, war, fear, and hatred. Giving his full support to the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, the Pope most feared would bring catholicism back into the fold of ultra-conservatism and bigotry has shown the courage that many European elected representatives never showed in the area. Free of the tight reigns of national interest, and flying high above political propaganda, the Church is trying to establish itself as a messenger of peace, of freedom, and of brotherhood. Where people expected awkwardness and a lack of political correctness, two disciplines Benedict XVI has mastered in his recent public address, notably in Africa, the Chief of Rome has comfortably evolved in the very place others fell to their knees. It does take extreme situations to bring out the exceptional emotion in people. Let’s hope he’s been heard.

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