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Opinion: Will the pope leave a footprint in the Holy Land?
The pope has apologized to Jews and Muslims for these comments, and he is working hard on this trip to say the right things. But the mistrust lingers.
His clumsiness has also done damage to the Holy Land’s third Abrahamic faith, Christianity. Arab Christians are an important but rapidly vanishing presence in the Holy Land. The Holy Land’s Christian Palestinians, who must live between the force of a Jewish state and the rising fundamentalism of an Islamic Palestinian leadership, suffer when the pope alienates both sides that surround them. The pope plans to visit with Iraqi Christian exiles and other Arab Christians to recognize their plight, but the damage he has done to their relations with Jews and Muslims is significant.
A century ago, Christians represented as much as 20 percent of the Holy Land. Decades of war, violence and intolerance of the land have forced large waves of Christian migration to Europe and the Americas. And now Christians represent not much more than 1 percent of the population. Some demographers fear that the living Christian presence in the place where the faith began may disappear altogether within a generation.
Compare the imagery between this papal trip and that of John Paul II. John Paul II went to the Holocaust Memorial and met with survivors of the Holocaust, some of whom he himself had even helped to save from the Nazis. John Paul’s eyes welled with tears that day and the room was heavy with emotion, an old man remembering the nightmare of what he saw in his native Poland and what he as a young cleric stood up against.
Now Benedict refuses to go to a new wing of the Holocaust museum because he disagrees with the historical depiction of the World War II-era Pope Pius XII. The exhibit presents the pope as “neutral” in the face of the horrors of the Holocaust.
The powerful presence of Pope John Paul II and the hard work he did to heal divisions between Catholics and Jews and the hand he extended to Islam gave him a moral authority to push hard for peace. Sadly, the intifada kicked off just months after his visit and the two sides were once again pulled into conflict with each other, a conflict that still simmers and sometimes boils over as it did in Gaza earlier this year.
Any false step by Benedict in Jerusalem could further inflame the burning tensions between Israelis and Palestinians in a “peace process” that truly does not deserve to be called that since there is no apparent “process” and it has not produced much “peace.”
The best way forward for this pope is to begin to walk more in step with the other two monotheistic faiths and realize that the only path to peace is through respect for all faiths. John Paul II understood that and lived that example.
John Paul preferred not to carry on the ancient custom of wearing red shoes as a symbol of martyrdom and the fire of the spirit. Instead he favored smart brown shoes. Walking shoes. Pope Benedict restored the ruby shoes, which are priced at nearly $700 a pair, as an example of a near fetish for tradition on every level.
Benedict XVI would do well to step beyond the obsession with tradition and walk a mile in the shoes of Israelis and Palestinians if he is going to leave any footprint in the ancient pathways of the Holy Land.
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