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Will the Pope insist on seeing Gaza this time?

Stuart Littlewood

Published: Updated:

CNN recently reported on Israeli PM Netanyahu’s reception at the Vatican and plans for the Pope to visit Israel in May.

Recalling the shabby treatment of religious leaders on previous visits to the Holy Land, let us hope Pope Francis takes a firmer line than his predecessor and insists on seeing Gaza and ministering to his terrorized flock there.

In May 2009, when Benedict was Pope, the Vatican told the Israeli press that the Holy Father would refrain from visiting Gaza. The word ‘refrain’ was a peculiar one in the circumstances.” Setting foot in Gaza was as sinful as sneaking into a brothel, it seemed. Israel’s hoodlums of course were keen to prevent him seeing how the tiny, overcrowded enclave had been devastated 16 months earlier by their murderous blitzkrieg, or Cast Lead. And the Pope went along with it.

Gaza’s isolated and besieged Catholic community were none too happy with the Pope’s attitude, judging by the reaction of their redoubtable old priest Father Manuel Mussallam. “We will ask him why he came, what he intends saying to the Christians, the Jews, the Muslims and why he isn’t coming to Gaza.”

“We’ll tell him that this is not the right moment to come and visit the holy places, while Jerusalem is occupied,” he added.

Time for the Pope to join BDS?

Having decided to go to Palestine, via Israel, it was imperative for the Pope to include Gaza or it would look like he didn’t give a damn about the appalling persecution in the very land where Christianity was born. He might as well hammer one more nail into Christendom’s coffin. Then again, should he be going to Israel at all while Jerusalem, Bethlehem and many other places dear to Christian and Muslim religious beliefs are under an army boot?

The last six years have seen things go from bad to worse – much worse. Palestinians in the Holy Land, and especially Gaza, need to be shown that the Christian Church cares about them even if nobody else does.

Stuart Littlewood

Indeed, has it finally come to the point where the Pope ought to do the decent thing and boycott Isral and join the BDS movement? Admittedly, it’s a tough call given the Catholic Church’s considerable interests out there.

But we have seen enough morally flimsy conduct by Christian leaders while Israel defiles the Holy Land. The previous November, while the regime was planning its vicious assault, named Operation Cast Lead, on Gaza’s Muslims and Christians after softening them up with two years of blockades and starvation, we were treated to the spectacle of the Archbishop of Canterbury joining the Chief Rabbi on a visit to Auschwitz to show joint solidarity against extreme hostility and genocide. The Archbishop called it “a place of utter profanity” and spoke of the collective corruption and moral sickness that made the Holocaust possible.

Would the pair show the same spirit of righteous solidarity by visiting Gaza? The scale of horror might be different but the moral sickness is just as obscene. And this being the Holy Land the profanity is many times worse.

The Pope too had been to Auschwitz to pray for the people murdered there. “I had to come here as a duty to truth and to those that suffered,” he said and spoke of the Nazis’ mania for destruction and domination.A very commendable act. But he wasn’t so keen to come and pray for those suffering in Gaza, victims of much the same kind of criminal insanity. Nevertheless, he turned up at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and the Western Wailing Wall, and hobnobbed with the chief rabbis… but not with his brave priest and the shattered congregation in Gaza. What had happened to his ‘duty to truth’?

After my visit to Gaza in late 2007, 18 months after Israel’s merciless blockade began, I wrote:

Fuel is running out, so are basics like washing powder. Shattered infrastructure and food shortages mean serious public health problems. Power cuts disrupt hospitals and vital drugs cannot be kept refrigerated. Thousands look death in the face as medical care collapses.

A friend emailed:

“Today in Gaza we have no cement to build graves for those who die.”

The subjugation and dispossession of Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land continues. It remains a mystery to me why our largely Christian democracy in Britain lavishly supports the Middle East ethnocracy that is causing this suffering.

The last six years have seen things go from bad to worse – much worse. Palestinians in the Holy Land, and especially Gaza, need to be shown that the Christian Church cares about them even if nobody else does. So where are these extravagantly robed Men of God when needed?

No repetition of the Benedict debacle, please

Archbishop Rowan Williams, visiting in 2010, did manage to get into Gaza. But as far as I could discover he made no public statement about the wretched conditions there, nor did he reveal his findings to the House of Lords where he had the support of a large gaggle of bishops, despite his claim to be “in a unique position to bring the needs and voices of those fighting poverty, disease and the effects of conflict, to the attention of national and international policy makers”.

And despite his declaration that “Christians need to witness boldly and clearly”.

And despite his urging greater awareness of the humanitarian crisis to ensure that the people of Gaza were not forgotten.

The Israelis, I heard, refused him access to Gaza from the start and only at the last minute allowed the Archbishop an hour or so, just enough for a quick visit to the Ahli Hospital and nowhere else. For that concession one wonders if he had to sign a gagging order.

His website, however, described how he, like the Pope, hobnobbed with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and paid respects to Yad Vashem and the Holocaust. He also talked with the President of Israel, who no doubt enjoyed his guest’s frustration at being prevented from seeing the horrors that had been inflicted on Gaza.

And news of any get-together with senior Islamic figures on the ground was conspicuously absent, leaving a question-mark over his commitment to inter-faith engagement.

Why on earth did he agree to fraternize with Jewish political and religious dignitaries when it was clear that his wish to carry out his Christian duty in Gaza would be obstructed? Does Lambeth Palace not realize that meekly accepting such insults only serves to legitimize the Israelis’ illegal occupation and gives a stamp of approval to the brutal siege of Gaza, the daily death-dealing air strikes against civilians, the persecution of Muslim and Christian communities and the regime’s utter contempt for international law and human rights?

One can only hope the Vatican realizes it too and avoids a repetition of the Benedict debacle. The Israelis walk all over fawning sycophants masquerading as Western political leaders.

Our spiritual leaders, however, are supposed to be made of sterner stuff and to have the moral backbone to face down evil.

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Stuart Littlewood is a marketing specialist turned writer-photographer in the UK. He is a regular contributor to Al Arabiya News and the author of the book Radio Free Palestine, which tells the plight of the Palestinians under occupation.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.