Pope Francis: Making Sense of a Whirlwind Middle East Tour

by | May 28, 2014 | Israel, Standing With Israel

After two intense days of religious ceremonies in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials, unscheduled photo opportunities and debilitating traffic arrangements, Israelis and interfaith relations experts are trying to attach the appropriate symbolism to Pope Francis’ visit to the region.

Nearly every stop made by the pontiff was subjected to simultaneous scrutiny and praise. While long-term tensions between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church were made apparent by the trip, some experts are acknowledging a thaw in Israel-Vatican relations. 

“The Jewish people and the Catholic Church in recent years have found that their 30 years of dialogue have paid off and friendly relationships have resulted,” says Betty Ehrenberg, executive director of the North American branch of the World Jewish Congress and chairperson of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, an umbrella organization representing prominent Jewish organizations in discussions with leaders of other faiths. 

Ehrenberg, who attended a meeting between the pope and Israeli President Shimon Peres, told JNS.org that there is “a friendship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people that should be nurtured” and that there “certainly was a warmth to this visit, and you can’t deny that.” 

“We have to realize that we have problems in common, and we have to work together on these problems,” she said.

Also important, in Ehrenberg’s estimation, is the message that the visit sends to Middle East Christians who find themselves under the constant threat of attack.

“There has been very little outcry [on Christian suffering] by the United Nations; there has been very little outcry by other international organizations,” Ehrenberg says. “We haven’t heard enough of an outcry, not from the Catholic Church and not from any of the Christian denominations. In fact, it has been the Jewish people that have been decrying this phenomenon.” 

But by visiting the Middle East, the pope “has shown that he is present and that he cares, and gives Christians here in the region strength,” she says.

“Hopefully we can work together with the Catholic Church to help ensure religious freedoms for everyone around the world, and for protection,” she says.

Pope Francis planted roots for improved interfaith relations even before being elected pontiff, says Giuseppe Platania, founder of Italy’s Israel Allies Caucus, an alliance that fosters cooperation and dialogue between the Italian Senate and the Israeli Knesset. 

“He is a friend of the Jewish people, probably more than others before him,” Platania told JNS.org. “He appears to be very open to dialogue with the Jewish community. Back in Argentina, the pope had a strong relationship with the Jewish community. So he grew up with a strong, positive relationship with the Jewish community from before he became pope.”

Platania says Francis made a “significant” symbolic gesture during his first week as pope by making a phone call to the chief rabbi of the Jewish community in Rome.

“When you become a leader of over a billion people, what you do carries tremendous weight,” Platania says.

Appropriately, then, every stop by Pope Francis on his Israel trip—planned and unplanned—was scrutinized for its symbolism.

“His itinerary is very significant,” Platania says. “What he goes to visit first was very well thought out. The actual order of the people he sees and shakes hands with and the sites he visits is very significant.”

The pope referred to Palestinian Authority-controlled territory as the “Palestinian state,” a move that contradicts the U.N. status of the Palestinian Authority as a nonmember observer state. Francis also landed first in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem a day before his official state welcome by Israel at Ben-Gurion International Airport.

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