Andreas R. Batlogg SJ
Benedict XVI in the Footsteps of Jesus
After Pope Benedict XVI in March visited Cameroon and Angola, he will go from 8 to 15 May 2009 to the Middle East resp. the Holy Land - to Jordan and Israel. The Israeli President Shimon Peres, the President of the Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud Abbas and the Jordanian King Abdullah II have in advance warmly welcomed the Pope. This is no matter of course after the trouble about the Regensburg lecture with the disastrous Mohammad quote of the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos (2006), the irritation at the Good Friday Intercession "For the Jews" promulgated by the Pope in the pre-conciliar "Trent rite" (2008), and the repeal of excommunication of the four traditionalist bishops (early 2009), among them a notorious denier of the Holocaust.
The Pope comes as a pilgrim. He has pointed to that. And not only the Vatican press office but also of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal repeatedly emphasized, "It is not a political visit." Elias Chacour, Greek Catholic Archbishop of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth and all Galilee, however, said in an interview, "Whatever he'll say and do is understood as a political statement. In this land of the monotheistic religions simply everything is always also political."
This is no mere rhetoric, if you look at Chacour's hints that show how delicate this pastoral journey will be in some respects: "First of all, he is not John Paul II, who by his personal charisma and his biography did not leave himself open to attack. During his journey in 2000 he got it right with everything, there was not a single point of criticism." With the current Pope it was quite different: "He does not have this charisma and, what is more, he is German. This is of course a fact that is of importance whether you like it or not. And in Regensburg he has offended the Muslims. On top of that there is the 14th May. He who is on this day in Israel must congratulate the State to its day of foundation, everything else would be impolite. But with it he then alienates the Palestinians for whom the 14th May is a day of mourning. This dilemma can hardly be solved."
In the biography of the 1939-born archbishop the sensitive situation of Christians in the Holy Land is reflected, especially the extreme situation of those Christians who are Palestinians and at the same time Israeli citizens. Chacour comes from Kafr Bir'im, which is situated four kilometres south of the Lebanese border and since the 16th century inhabited. It is one of the two Arab villages which were to 100 percent populated by Christians and in 1951 destroyed by the Israeli army. The right to return decided by the Supreme Court has not yet become effective up to this day.
Those who come from Kafr Bir'im and Iqrit are therefore counted to "Israel's homeless, landless people without address and rights" - "refugees and uprooted in their own country," said Chacour, whose traumatic experience when he was young "had the potential to make him a terrorist". It can easily be understood that he, like Christians in other areas of the Holy Land, hopes for encouragement for his faith and the delicate but necessary presence of Christians in Israel.
In the West Bank the 20000 to 30000 Christians are about one percent of the population. Twenty five years ago about 60 percent of the inhabitants of Bethlehem were Christians, today only about nine to ten percent, and the mass exodus continues. Islam is not to blame for it, but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Apart from minor collisions Christians and Muslims in Israel maintain excellent relationships. They form a "community of hope and suffering" (Chacour). The presence of Christians between the Jewish and Muslim majority is a moderating factor. If their emigration is not stopped, the weights will shift at the expense of stability.
All these things are of importance to the stations of this journey starting in Jordan. There the Pope will celebrate the mass in the stadium of the capital, talk with representatives of Islam at an interreligious meeting in the Hussein Bin Talal Mosque in Amman, lay the foundation-stone of the Catholic University in Madaba and symbolically consecrate the foundation-stone of a large church near the place of baptism at the Jordan. In Israel he will visit Jerusalem and Nazareth - and go to Bethlehem. For safety's sake he will avoid the Gaza Strip, where still 2000 to 3000 Christians (0.2 percent of the population) live, and in the museum in Yad Vashem he will only go to a Shoa memorial room in order to avoid a debate about Pius XII.
In the 2000-year-Church history only three bishops of Rome were in the Holy Land. During a three-day journey to Jordan in 1964 Paul VI made an eleven-hour side-trip to Jerusalem (which then still belonged to Jordan) and the lake Gennesaret. In the Jubilee Year 2000 - there are diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Israel since January 1994 - John Paul II, who was already marked by illness, put a piece of paper in the cracks of the Western Wall of the Temple - a picture that went around the world. And now the "pope who comes from Germany," as Benedict XVI said in his speech of 28 May 2006 in Auschwitz.
The Pope does not appear in a private capacity. Even as pilgrim he remains the head of the Vatican. Joseph Ratzinger all his life developed his theology "in the footsteps of Jesus", and as pope he let not anything stop him from publishing a Jesus book. What matters now are not only words and speeches but signs - signs of encouragement, signs showing the way, maybe signs of some clarification.