Mideast dialogue in need of Pope Francis’ blessing

A visit to the Middle East will always be tricky for the head of the Catholic world

Yossi Mekelberg
Yossi Mekelberg
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Jesuit clergy are known for their exceptional communication skills. These skills were tested this week during Pope Francis’ visit to Jordan, Israel and Palestine. The selection of Pope Francis to replace Benedict XVI as the new leader of the Catholic Church was greeted with immense expectations for a new reformist Pope, who is more down to earth approachable and in touch with the church followers’ daily lives. In his fifteen months in office, he has succeeded thus far in fulfilling the majority of these expectations. A visit to the Middle East will always be tricky for the head of the Catholic world, despite the region being as much the cradle for Christianity as for Judaism and Islam. However, the number of followers of the Catholic Church in the Middle East are far and few between.

His three day visit to Jordan, Israel and with the Palestinian Authority came at a very delicate moment in an already fragile part of world. The peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians, in which religion is playing a significant part, is in tethers and religious extremism is ever-present across the region. A visit, especially at present, to the place which is host to holy places for all three monotheistic religions is highly symbolic. This required his holiness to use all of his diplomatic skills and charm. His message was one of peace and friendship, an important one in this volatile region. It has special importance for Christians as they are a minority in the region and are far from feeling secure. Despite a very courteous welcome in Israel by government and religious leaders, there were segments in Israeli society, especially among the ultraorthodox, that would rather not see such a visit taking place at all, for either religious or historical reasons.

Taking the decision to be the first pontiff to fly directly to the West Bank and calling it the “the State of Palestine” was a clear and direct message to Israel

Yossi Mekelberg

All papal international visits are driven by a high octane of symbolism, but none more than a visit to the Holy Land. Pope Francis managed to steer away from direct confrontation with his hosts, but did not avoid addressing major controversies. His gestures as much as his words expressed a strong will of the Catholic Church under his leadership to play an active role in bringing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a peaceful solution. Taking the decision to be the first pontiff to fly directly to the West Bank and calling it the “the State of Palestine” was a clear and direct message to Israel about the Holy See’s stand on the long overdue two-state solution and the Israeli occupation. He was adamant that the latest failure in the U.S. peace initiative should not act as a deterrent from continuing the efforts to bring peace. On the contrary, Francis insisted that, “there is a need to intensify efforts and initiatives aimed at creating the conditions for a stable peace based on justice, on the recognition of rights for every individual, and on mutual security.” This position makes clear that he perceives the current situation as depriving many of justice and rights, and hence peace “must resolutely be pursued, even if each side has to make certain sacrifices.”

Boldest expression of his disapproval

Pope Francis’ boldest expression of his disapproval of the occupation was manifested in his decision to pray in front of the security wall just in front of graffiti saying “Free Palestine.”

This act, just before leaving the occupied Palestinian territories and starting his visit in Israel, was a powerful message against what the wall symbolizes. He was under no illusion that this gesture would displease his Israeli hosts, yet was still determined to carry it out. Israel usually tries on papal visits to avoid political confrontation with the Vatican and instead concentrates on improving their relationship with the Christian world and encouraging Christian religious tourism. For the Palestinian leadership, it is also an opportunity to promote this type of tourism. Nonetheless, considering the media attention paid to the Pope’s visit, it was also a great opportunity for President Abbas and other Palestinian officials to drive home their message of the intolerability of the absence of Palestinian self-determination and the damage caused by the constant expansion of Israeli settlements.

The relationship between the Holy See and the Jewish state has always been a delicate affair, considering the history of Jewish persecution at the hands of the Catholic Church, and especially its behavior during the Holocaust. Only 20 years ago, Israel and the Vatican established diplomatic relations, and since then it has been a long haul of a healing process. The visit is part of this step-by-step long road of reconciliation. Many Jewish people, especially from European origins, are still very suspicious of the Catholic Church and its true intentions. A group of extreme right-wing Jewish protesters expressed their feeling by causing disturbances at the King David’s Tomb complex in Jerusalem. They protested against Pope Francis’ visit to Israel in general, but also because they claim that Israel and the Vatican are edging closer towards an agreement that will transfer the control of the Cenacle in Jerusalem to the Holy See. It was denied by both the Vatican and Israel, but because the site is situated above David’s Tomb, it prompted protestations and provided an opportunity for those who were against this visit in the first place to make their feelings known. They were, however, a small minority compared with the majority in Israel that is either apathetic or passively skeptical towards a visit by foreign religious dignitaries, even if it is the pope himself.

Reconciliation towards the Jewish people

Counter balancing his visit to the separation wall with a last minute unscheduled stop at the Memorial to the Victims of Terror at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl would indicate the pope is aware of the complexity of the conflict, responsive to Israeli sensitivities and ready to find a suitable act to avoid a rift. Pope Francis’ visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the Holocaust, praying and honoring the victims and survivors, as did two of his predecessors, was another act of reconciliation towards the Jewish people. However, many would regard this more genuine if the pontiff will allow access to the Vatican’s archives from the Holocaust period, which would most probably reveal the extent of the Vatican’s knowledge about the Holocaust and when they received that information.

Beyond all the symbolism of Pope Francis’ visit to the Middle East, it also emerged that this particular religious leader has an ambition to play a part in the peace process. The visit, no doubt, contributed to strengthening relations with Palestinians and Israelis alike. Nevertheless, Francis’ invitation to host a prayer summit meeting at his apartment in the Vatican, for the Israeli and Palestinian presidents, signals that he might have an ambition to become involved as a peace broker where everyone else has thus far failed. The peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians seems desperate for some divine intervention, though even this might prove not to be enough for both sides to reach a peaceful end to their conflict.


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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