In order to avoid controversies, official voices from the Vatican have been trying to explain that the pope’s visit to the Middle East is not political. It should be understood as “a pilgrimage”, aiming to spread a ”religious message” of peace. All these terminological contortions will change nothing in the reality of the matter: the leader of the Catholic church, the head of the Vatican state, is visiting a region torn apart by the more critical political conflicts of our time. The world would be right to expect from him a plain religious discourse as well as a clear political positioning on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
In March 2000, John Paul II paved the road of reconciliation and visited Israel. He apologised for centuries of slander and persecution perpetrated by the church and Christians (or with their passive or active complicity). This step was important and necessary. Nevertheless, one should not expect Benedict XVI to do the same: what both the international community and the Middle East direly need is a pope moving a step forward from uttering apology to taking responsibility.
In practical terms, it means to act in two different fields concurrently. It is imperative to open the Vatican archives and to push for more transparency as to the past. Beyond apologies, a self-critical take and accountability based on verified facts will both help all Christians and improve relations with Jews. This is much needed, as we still expect the current pope to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor by promoting interfaith dialogue and better understanding and commitment towards religious pluralism, mutual respect and common values.
The clarity of the religious message will give some weight to his political message. The Israel-Palestine conflict is a political conflict, but nothing prevents a religious leader from making his voice heard. For too long, we have heard that this conflict is between Jews and Arabs or Muslims. The pope must make it clear that the rights of all believers must be equally respected. Jews, Christians and Muslims must have the same right to practise their religion and equal access to holy sites. By being silent on this issue the pope, and many Christians around the world, are corroborating the idea that it is a Jewish-Muslim opposition: paradoxically, fewer religious voices speaking about equality are transforming it into a conflict between two religions.
Besides, we need the pope to be consistent with Christian values and speak the truth: as head of the Catholic church, he has a moral duty to be on the side of the poor and the oppressed. The Palestinians are the oppressed; they are suffering under an intolerable blockade in Gaza. As much as successive popes have apologised for the past, Benedict XVI has the responsibility to remind powerful states that they are, and should be, held accountable for their actions. The pope’s post-Gaza visit can by no means be presented as a pilgrimage: whatever the pressures on him to beg forgiveness again and again, one needs a clear and realistic message from the church on the Middle East conflict.
Let us hope the pope will remind Israeli prime minister Netanyahu (whose party does not recognise the Palestinian state) and his foreign minister Lieberman that there will be no peace without justice and that the Palestinians’ blood has the same value as the Israelis’. Silence on this issue would be to implicitly support Israel: in a time of repression, to avoid politics is politics. Will the pope have the political courage to be a true contemporary religious voice reminding us of the ethical responsibility of the powerful and the equal dignity and legitimate resistance of the oppressed? This was Jesus’ message and it should remain so, in Israel and everywhere around the world.