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Prayer, Not Politics, On The Pope’s Visit to Israel

Though Pope Francis was seen foremost as a world leader during the trip

Tal Kra-Oz
May 27, 2014
Pope Francis places a prayer into the Western Wall on May 26, 2014 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)
Pope Francis places a prayer into the Western Wall on May 26, 2014 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)

Pope Francis’ whirlwind 3-day tour of the Middle East came to a close yesterday evening at Ben Gurion airport, as Prime Minister Netanyahu asked that the Pope “pray for us, and we’ll pray for you.” It was a fitting close to a visit that Israeli and Palestinian officials alike attempted to milk for all its political value, but the Vatican insisted was a simple pilgrimage of prayer. In the end, the Vatican had its way: Francis, despite his reputation for jauntily revitalizing the Church with seemingly off-the-cuff statements, was the very model of wary piety.

Even the one big headline he made vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—an invitation to Presidents Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas to join him in a joint worship session for peace at the Vatican—was more about symbolic prayer than politics. Still, the heart of his trip—the visits to Gethsemane and the Cenacle, a show of Catholic-Orthodox unity at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre—went almost unreported in Israel. The Pope was seen first and foremost as a world leader.

After spending Saturday in Jordan, the Pope spent six hours and forty minutes in Bethlehem on Sunday, where he met with Abbas, led a public Mass in Manger Square, and made an impromptu prayer-stop at the concrete wall comprising part of the separation barrier. That stop, along with his reference to the “State of Palestine,” was immediately seized upon as a Palestinian PR win.

Whether the Pope gave his Israeli hosts similar satisfaction is debatable. He paid a customary visit to the Western Wall and the Temple Mount. His laying of a wreath on Theodor Herzl’s tomb was unprecedented, as was his unscripted visit to the adjacent memorial to victims of terrorism. To counterbalance the visit to the barrier, Netanyahu made sure the Pope understood the connection between the two structures. “When my son was 10 years old, his best friend was a girl, a beautiful Ethiopian girl, who sat next to him in class,” Netanyahu told him. “One day she didn’t come. She was blown up in a bus not far from here because there was no fence, no wall.”

But the Pope’s visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial posed its own special complexities. Late last week, Avner Shalev, chairman of Yad Vashem, said he was hoping to hear “a statement that will guide the Church and its followers towards the goal of remembrance, with the purpose of building a better world free of hate, xenophobia and anti-semitism.” But on his visit yesterday, Pope Francis defied those expectations. Though he was visibly moved to meet the six Holocaust survivors presented to him, kissing the hands of each, his speech did not even mention Jews, let alone Nazis. Even so, his thoughtful and emotional address was more heartfelt and willing to wrestle with the hard questions of God, Man, and the Holocaust than any given at Yad Vashem in recent memory. (On Sunday night, Father Federico Lombardi, the director of the Holy See Press Office—perhaps in an act of preemption—stressed that the Pope had spoken of the six million Shoah victims immediately after landing in Israel, during his remarks at the airport).

From Yad Vashem, the Pope’s entourage made its way to a meeting with Israel’s two Chief Rabbis, a meeting notable only for the fact that when the CEO of the Rabbinate, that afternoon’s master of ceremonies, recited the list of dignitaries, he reportedly made a point of omitting the title “Rabbi” before the name of Abraham Skorka, a close friend of the Pope from Buenos Aires and a member of the Conservative movement. (Many of the rabbinical council members opted to not attend the event).

The Papal motorcade was surely not to Francis’ liking: gone was the open-topped vehicle he used in Bethlehem to greet the crowds, in favor of a beefed-up fleet on loan from the President and Prime Minister. With the road closures and dark glass windows, very few Israelis actually managed to lay eyes on the Pope, which is why his visit to the President’s residence was a particularly hot ticket. Ambassadors, judges, religious leaders, and a smattering of Christian Arabs who voluntarily serve in the IDF were all in attendance. In keeping with the themes of interfaith dialogue, the residence’s lawn was also packed with school children of all three monotheistic faiths, including a 120-member choir.

The Pope began his address by speaking of the importance of free access to the city’s holy sites, no doubt in reference to the Vatican’s attempts to secure regular prayer privileges for Christians at the Cenacle on Mount Zion. Believed to be the room of the Last Supper, it is situated above the site believed to be King David’s tomb. Rumors that the property would be transferred to the Holy See—denied by the Israeli government—sparked several protests among ultra-Orthodox Jews over the last few weeks. But at the same time, his words—“How good it is when pilgrims and residents enjoy free access to the Holy Places and can freely take part in religious celebrations”—could easily be interpreted as a boost to Jews forbidden from prayer atop the Temple Mount, or even to the Women of the Wall. His condemnation of religious intolerance was a reminder of the “price tag” attacks that were rampant in the lead-up to his visit.

Ultimately, though, the Papal visit was the opening shot to President Peres’ swan song. His successor will be elected in two weeks, and in mid-July he will step down. It was only at his insistent, repeated invitations that the Pope opted to devote his second trip abroad to the Holy Land (that, alongside the vagueness surrounding the genesis of the upcoming Israeli-Palestinian prayer summit, leads one to believe that it too originated with Peres). His speech was classic Peres, full of lines that only he could pull off convincingly. To the Pope’s wariness, Peres was all rejuvenation.

“My dear friend,” Peres concluded. “I was young and now I am old. I learned that dreams do not age and I recommend to everyone to act accordingly.”

Tal Kra-Oz is a writer based in Tel Aviv.