Pope’s unscripted moves speak the loudest of all

The visit by the head of the Roman Catholic church has given Palestine’s Arab Christian community hope, writes James Zogby.

During Pope Francis’ short tenure as leader of the Catholic Church, he has demonstrated a keen understanding of the transformative power of spontaneous or unexpected gestures to affect opinion and bring hope to those who have felt the sting of rejection.

At his first Holy Thursday Mass, for example, Pope Francis washed and kissed the feet of prisoners, one of whom was a Muslim woman. Although this gesture shocked Catholic traditionalists, it was widely seen as a profound demonstration of humility and solidarity.

A few months later, Pope Francis’s first trip out of Rome was to Lampedusa, the island refuge for migrants seeking entry into Europe. It was his way of confronting the continent’s growing anti-immigrant sentiment.

In addition to these planned gestures, there have been the more frequent unexpected papal acts that have made “Francis-watching” a rewarding exercise. Both the scripted and unscripted Pope Francis were on display during his three day visit to the Holy Land, and, as always, his impact was real.

From the outset, the Vatican insisted that the Pope’s purpose was primarily religious, befitting his role as the leader of the world’s largest Christian church. Emphasis was given to his efforts to promote interfaith dialogue. They pointed to his scheduled meetings with Greek Patriarch Bartholomew – marking the 50th anniversary of their predecessors’ historic meeting in Jerusalem. Also noted was the fact that accompanying the Pope on his journey were two Argentine friends, a Rabbi and an Imam, and that, while in Jerusalem, Pope Francis would meet with the Grand Mufti and Israel’s Chief Rabbis.

But there were clear indications, even from the schedule, that there was going to be more to this papal visit. There was, for example, the pointed reference to his coming to “The State of Palestine”. And if that message was not clear enough, the Pope’s delegation made the journey from Amman to Bethlehem direct, via helicopter – without first going through Israel.

In the lead up to the visit, there were growing concerns of disruptive violence emanating from ultranationalist Israelis upset with the papal visit and the permission given allowing Pope Francis to celebrate Mass at a site Christians hold to be the scene of Jesus’s Last Supper.

There had been a spike in these anti-Arab, and specifically anti-Christian, actions in the weeks before the Pope’s arrival.

Following a statement from the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem rebuking the lax response of Israeli authorities to this threat – a concern echoed by the Vatican – the Israelis finally acted to detain several instigators.

While the visit’s schedule and itinerary made it clear that Pope Francis would be travelling in Bethlehem in an open-air vehicle and would have direct contact with Palestinians, it was made equally clear that while in Israel, all aspects of the trip were to be controlled by the authorities.

In a pre-trip briefing, the Vatican spokesperson used rather undiplomatic language to describe this state of affairs, noting that “the State of Israel has imposed conditions ‘sine qua non’ and has asked to introduce new diplomatic aspects and protocols”.

“It is regretful that in Jerusalem the Christian faithful will not be able to see the Pope,” it was noted, “because when and where the Pope goes is decided by restrictions set forth by security forces.”

As powerful as these messages about the planned aspects of the trip were, the Pope’s spontaneous acts were even more powerful.

Pope Francis’s unplanned stop for a moment of prayer at the separation barrier that cuts Bethlehem off from Jerusalem is a case in point.

The photo of the Pope resting his head against the concrete barrier at a place where clearly written were the words “Free Palestine” and “Bethlehem looks like the Warsaw Ghetto” was on the front pages of newspapers worldwide.

Then there was the unscheduled stop at Dheisheh refugee camp and the compassion he demonstrated during his conversations with families who had lost homes and land in the continuing conflict with Israel.

While in Israel, the Pope continued to surprise observers with gestures of compassion and hope. He pointedly referred to the Muslim community who gathered during his visit with the Grand Mufti as “my dear brothers”.

After denouncing the evils of terrorism and the Holocaust, he greeted a small group of assembled Holocaust survivors by holding and kissing the hand of each. And, in a message directed at all of the religious communities of the Holy Land, Pope Francis prayed that “this blessed land may be one which has no place for those who, by exploiting and absolutising the value of their own tradition, prove intolerant and violent toward those of others”.

After the image of Pope Francis resting his head in prayer against the separation barrier, probably the most reported of the Pope’s unscripted moves was his invitation to the presidents of Palestine and Israel to meet with him in Rome next month. While Pope Francis has said that he is merely inviting the leaders to join him at his home in prayer, one must always expect the unexpected.

In the end, aside from the Pope’s gestures for peace and his ability to speak with conviction and compassion there is another area where this visit has had an impact.

His commanding presence has given Palestine’s Arab Christian community hope and strengthens their resolve to remain rooted to their land and to affirm their role as part of a unified Palestinian people. That may or may not have been on the papal agenda, but it may well be this papal visit’s most significant contribution.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa

Published: May 27, 2014 04:00 AM


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