Sunday 17 May 2009

Why the Pope Should Not Have Visited Israel Now

Pope Benedict XVI has concluded his visit to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority Area and is now safely back in the Vatican. This trip must surely rank as one of the most difficult to date by the present Pope. The reason for this is not only because of the the very sensitive political environment which exists in the Middle East today. It is also not only because of the centuries-old conflict that exists between Catholics and Jews. The combination of these two points and the actions of Benedict XVI in Holocaust-related matters in recent years has provided the background for a trip that was always doomed to fail. I believe that a trip to Israel at this time was ill-advised, and should not have taken place.

So that you should not interpret my comments incorrectly, I wish to state that Israel welcomes tourists to its shores, including the Pope. A visit by him reinforces the importance of Israel's geographical position as the incubator of Christianity. Accompanying the Pope were many Christian pilgrims who were eager to attend mass by the Pope in the Holy Land and to accompany him on his visit to Christianity's holy sites. The Pope, and all the pilgrims are naturally welcome visitors in Israel, and a cordial welcome was extended to all. In addition, it confirms for all to see that the Israeli government is happy to open all religious sites to worshippers of all religions. In terms of the ongoing roller-coaster relationship between the Vatican and Jews, the timing of the visit appears to me to be unfortunate.

There appears to be little progress under the guidance of the current Pope in the age-old issues continuing to blight relations between Catholics and Jews. In particular, the Vatican stands accused of retaining artefacts from the second temple which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. It is claimed that many items from the temple, including the Menorah from Solomon's Temple, remain housed in the catacombs below the Vatican City. What is known for sure is that the Vatican museum houses one of the richest and most extensive collections of Jewish manuscripts in the world. Quite how they came to be there, and why the Vatican feels that it is the best guardian of such holy texts is something that I do not know or pretend to understand. Benedict XVI's predecessor, Pope John Paul II, saw fit to maintain an open dialogue by making one or two symbolic gestures. In 2005, he agreed to loan to Israel a number of important Hebrew manuscripts dating back to medieval times. Amongst the manuscripts was a work by Moses Maimonides, regarded as one of Judaism's most celebrated and influential Rabbis and Sages. The gesture was reported as being "in the interests of improving relations between Catholics and Jews". One may have considered this gesture to possibly open the doors for additional gestures to further cultivate goodwill. Unfortunately, there were no such gestures from Benedict XVI.

Instead, he has become embroiled in two Holocaust-related matters that have raised the ire of the Jewish world. The first is the beatification of Pope Pius XII. He was the Pope during the Holocaust and stands accused of not making sufficient effort to assist the plight of those who were callously murdered by the Nazi regime. Even worse, he is accused of colluding with the Nazis to the detriment of many millions of victims. The beatification process of "Hilter's Pope" was initiated in 1967 and has suffered numerous lengthy delays along its route. Benedict has openly supported the beatification of Pope Pius XII on a number of different occasions, and praised his wartime efforts to help the Jews during a mass in October 2008 to commemorate 50 years since his death. Benedict was subsequently forced to announce a delay to the beatification process early in 2009 following international criticism and heightened tensions between Israel and the Vatican.

The second issue linked to the Holocaust is Benedict's decision in January 2009 to lift the excommunication of British Bishop Richard Williamson. Williamson, along with a number of his colleagues, was excommunicated from the Catholic Church in 1988 for openly protesting the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Williamson has claimed that the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust is no more than a few hundred thousand, and that the universally recognised number of 6 million is grossly exaggerated. In addition, Williamson has stated that the gas chambers were a fiction. His revisionist claims were being made as recently as January 2009 on a Swedish TV program. Surely the act of readmitting Williamson to the Church under these circumstances should have been considered insulting to the memory of those who needlessly perished.

The issue of Benedict's Holocaust actions may not have been raised so conspicuously were it not for the fact that, as Joseph Ratzinger in wartime Germany, Benedict was a member of a Hitler youth organisation. Although it is claimed that this was forced upon him as it was on all children growing up in Germany at the time, not enough has been done to clarify his own position regarding the Holocaust. This has been compounded by his insensitivity in dealing with Holocaust issues as mentioned above, and by his somewhat detached statements made during his visit to Yad Vashem, Jerusalem's Holocaust Memorial Museum last week.

Middle East politics is a tough job, and I am not convinced that Benedict was ready to step into this cauldron. He was clearly taken advantage of by the Palestinians and their sympathisers who used him to promote their cause at every opportunity during his visit. Whilst I heard him declare that the Palestinians have a right to their own homeland, I did not hear him declare that there are responsibilities that come with a Palestinian homeland. I also heard him criticise the barrier wall that has been erected to protect Israelis from Palestinian suicide bombers, although I did not hear him recognise the reason why the wall was forced upon Israelis and Palestinians alike in the first place. Surely, for somebody who is known for a measured and highly nuanced style, it would not have taken a great deal to assume a slightly more balanced approach.

As head of the Catholic Church, Benedict XVI has the status of a head of state rather than a head of faith. He is welcomed by Presidents and Kings during his trips abroad. This reflects the ongoing power and influence of the Catholic Church, not only in the Catholic world, but much further afield. The status is accompanied by responsibilities, and requires a highly political approach to all relationships, despite the Church's stated preference to keep out of politics. In choosing to visit Israel against the backdrop of recent events, I feel that Benedict has displayed an amateurish approach to a task that demands a professional.


Liberator_Rev said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Liberator_Rev said...

Anyone interested in the controversy of the role of the Roman Catholic Church in the Jewish Holocaust should explore JesusWouldBeFurious.Org/RCscandal.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you should do your homework better before writing on a blog that can be read by thousands of people with more accurate information on the Pope and the Catholic Church that you have displayed here, sorry to say.
Nearly every one of your statements and opinions can be parsed and snd showed by citing FACTS to be wrong. But, anyhow, if it makes you happy to cling to your opinion and false statements, so be it.

Anthony Reich said...

It's a shame that you were not more specific about the facts that you feel are wrong. I would welcome your corrections to the facts that you believe to be inaccurate.