Pope Francis Makes Symbolic Gesture to Holy Land Christians

By Ray Hanania

May 29, 2014 6 min read

The visit of Pope Francis to the birthplace of Christianity sparked more of a political debate than the much more needed resuscitation of Western Christian support for the fast-disappearing Christians of the Holy Land.

While the population of Muslims and Jews are increasing in the Holy Land, the population of Christians is fast disappearing. And most Western Christians don't care.

Pope Francis didn't go to Lebanon, where Christians are under siege. He didn't go to Egypt, which has the largest concentration of Christians, the Coptic Orthodox. He was smart enough not to bother with Saudi Arabia, where Christians are persecuted and banned.

And, he didn't waste much time in Jordan, the only place where Christians have been accepted under the benevolent monarchy of King Abdullah II.

Pope Francis had to go to Palestine because Palestine is the birthplace of Christianity, a religion that has splintered off into dozens of religious sects since its birth there 2,000 years ago.

Pope Francis recognizes that he faces an uphill battle against a wall of apathy from the world's Christians who long ago abandoned Bethlehem, the birthplace of their religious faith.

Most Western Christians are Christian only in faith. They have no sense of nationalism. They are nurtured in a belief that is a fundamental cornerstone of democracy that church and state are separate.

They see no nostalgia in the reality of Bethlehem, which is no longer a Christian city. It is populated by a Muslim majority and occupied by a Jewish military.

Pope Francis must have clearly seen for himself the reality of Christian life in the Holy Land. It is deteriorating quickly. He also could see that he is also up against a religious bureaucracy. Many, if not most, of the Christians of the Middle East are not Catholic. They don't view the Pope with the same reverence as Roman Catholics.

Had he not been wearing his Pontifical Vestments, chances are he would have been detained, interrogated and maybe even jailed by Israeli security guards.

But there were startling moments like when Pope Francis visited the Israeli Wall, a stone, mortar and electrified wire fence built to further embed Israel's control of the Palestinian lands and to expel non-Jews from its borders.

Israel has two policies that are symbolized by this monstrosity that Israelis minimize by calling it "the barrier." The first is to make life intolerable for non-Jews. The second is to confiscate as much land in the occupied West Bank to make statehood intolerable for Palestinians, too.

Pope Francis did get into a mini-debate with Israel's right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose history of denying Palestinian rights in the Holy Land is notorious and longstanding. Netanyahu is no stranger to anti-Palestinian hatreds and stereotypes.

There was that one moment when Netanyahu claimed Jesus, a Jewish Rabbi, spoke Hebrew. In fact, Jesus spoke Aramaic, as did most of the Hebrew inhabitants of the Holy Land during the time of the birth of Christianity.

But there was no real debate about Israel's policies. Pope Francis avoided confronting the racism that plagues Christians, and Muslims in Israel and in the occupied West Bank.

I almost got the feeling that by visiting the Holy Land, Pope Francis was basically telling the world that it is ok for nothing to happen. His proclamations fell far too short of what Palestinians needed to force Israel to live up to its peace obligations and embrace two-states. Israel doesn't want two-states. It wants one state, a Jewish state.

As a Christian, I also felt like the trip that Pope Francis made to the Holy Land was like a grandson visiting the grave of his grandfather at the cemetery. Holy Land Christians are disappearing so fast that one could argue that if he wanted to speak to Christian Arabs, he should have traveled to South America, where many of them fled when Israel became an authoritarian state.

Maybe that was what the Holy Land trip was all about. Planting flowers at the grave where Middle East Christianity has been buried. He certainly wasn't tough with Israel at all.

In failing to be tough with Israel, Pope Francis also missed a chance to address the Muslim world and the oppression of Christians by Islamic extremists. Mainstream Muslims fail to speak out against the extremists.

Most Muslims respect Christians, as they also respect Jews. But mainstream Muslims fear the violence of the Islamic extremists. As many Muslims have been murdered by al-Qaida as have Christians and Jews. They also have been persecuted and criticizing the extremists oftentimes is interpreted as undermining the just causes the extremists hijack.

There were so many issues that Pope Francis could have addressed in this historic trip to the Holy Land.

But rather than try to confront the real issues, he chose symbolism, which I guess is better than nothing.

Ray Hanania is an award-winning Palestinian American columnist managing editor of The Arab Daily News at www.TheArabDailyNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @RayHanania. To find out more about Ray Hanania and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.

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