Between the 24th and the 26th of May, 2014 Pope Francis has payed an official visit to the Holy Land, meeting with both Israeli and Palestinian authorities, as with Catholic, Jewish and Palestinian families. During his visit, Pope Francis invited Israeli President Shimon Peres, President of the State of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas and the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to a Vatican prayer summit for Mideast peace, which has taken place on the 8th of June, 2014. However important these steps may be, they will probably not revolutionize the staggering Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. On the other hand, they might very well serve the cause of the Catholic revival, presenting itself in the face of the new Argentinian pope.
A Place in the Sun for the Renewing Church?
Many have interpreted this visit, and the Pope’s invocation for peace, as a return to international influence of the Catholic Church. As falling church attendance numbers throughout Europe jeopardize the legitimacy of the Holy See in both spiritual and political grounds, would Pope Francis be hoping to reestablish the world-wide political influence by actively entering the sphere of political conflicts, advocating peace?
If so, the Holy Land would not be the ideal place to do so, not only because of its complexity, but as The Economist points out, Holy See-Israeli relations have not been particularly difficult.[i] Naturally, Pope Francis is not the first pope to have visited Israel and the Palestinian authorities – the first official visit of the Papal See was that of Paul VI in January 1964. However, the Holy See has not recognized Israel officially until 1993, via the official visit of John Paul II.[ii] Up from 1964 the Holy See has urged Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. This is the first time it actively does so by inviting the parties for a common prayer. Although Pope Francis has stressed that his official visit bares no political importance, he also stated that he wishes to promote interreligious discussion and looks forward to “reopening a path that has been closed.”[iii]
Bearing in mind the famous economic principle that people respond to incentives, it is quite clear that the Vatican prayer summit will not revolutionize the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. However it may very well serve other purposes.
First and foremost it is a significant symbolic step of the Holy See towards Israel. A papal visit is not an everyday phenomenon in Israel, and Francis has been both respectful an cautious during his visit, taking extra time out of the schedule to visit a Memorial of Jewish victims of suicide bombers. Although Israel does not like to be reproached the lack of Israeli-Palestinian peace, it might accept an (almost) impartial mediation in the peace process due to its recent isolation from the USA.
Secondly, Pope Francis’s steps reinforce Holy See-Palestinian relations, which have proved less complicated than the Pope’s relation to Israel. Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas greeted Francis’s invitation to the Vatican prayer summit as “an act of great courage” and has stressed that solutions should be pursued so that “both of our people can live in their own sovereign state.”[i] Accordingly, upon the visit of Francis to Palestine, the Palestine News Network has emphasized a long history of good relations.[ii] However there might even be a bigger benefit of Francis’s initiative.
Uniting Christians of the Globe
Undoubtedly, an active implication in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is of a worldly prestige, as the conflict is and has been in the focus of interest and news coverage ever since its beginning. It is only logical that a worldwide figure as the pope should take a stand and, accordingly to Christian principles, should lead the two States towards a peaceful solution. As Pope Francis advocates an active, reformist image of Catholic Church, it was predictable that he would move towards advocating Mideast peace, too. Stopping to pray at the Israeli security barrier, Francis has been quoted saying that a Church “that doesn’t have the ability to surprise with its message of love is “weak, sick and dying and needs CPR.”[i]
By proving himself in the Israeli-Palestinian relations, the Holy See could regain some of that lost prestige. An active peace-promoting, reforming Pope could largely compensate for the damaging effects of the recent public scandals of the Catholic Church, such as the issue of pedophile priests. It is not a coincidence that Pope Francis has explicitly asked all Catholics on the 8th of June to pray along with those present in the Vatican prayer summit. By the way, this has passed through Twitter, by the creation of the hashtag weprayforpeace.
As Emma Green points out, [ii] Pope Francis’s visit was as much about Christian communities as about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The official homepage, created for the visit of the Holy Land (http://popefrancisholyland2014.lpj.org/) contains a whole section on the situation of Christians in the Holy Land and their sufferings. In addition, the centerpiece of Francis’s visit was a meeting with the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew. It is only natural that Pope Francis is first and foremost an advocate of Catholics rights, and communities.
Pope Francis and Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew in 2014 in Jerusalem (source: http://popefrancisholyland2014.lpj.org/ )
The declaration signed with Patriarch Bartholomew states that « Our fraternal encounter today is a new and necessary step on the journey towards the unity to which only the Holy Spirit can lead us” and voices a “shared profound concern for the situation of Christians in the Middle East and for their right to remain full citizens of their homelands.” This declaration might be of a bigger importance to the Catholic Church than the encouragement for worldwide and in particular Israeli-Palestinian peace. So it would seem, that the surprisingly big ratio of news coverage that forgot to mention the presence of Bartholomew in the prayer summit, all have missed the bigger picture and have misinterpreted the aims of Pope Francis.
As Israeli-Palestinian peace talks come to a halt, and the new coalition of Fatah and Hamas spark the anger of the Israeli Netanyahu-government, Israeli-American relations deteriorate. According to Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid, these have reached an “unprecedented crisis”[i]. Will Israeli isolation lead to abandoning the settlement plans promoted by Netanyahu? And if yes, would the Holy See be ready to take an active part in the peace process? Its interests are certainly at stake, as his prestige. However, contradicting most of the news coverage of Pope Francis’s visit in the Holy Land, a deep implication might not be in the near-future plans of the Pope now. We should not forget that the first and foremost obligation of the Holy See and of Pope Francis is the maintenance of unity within the Catholic Church, the defense of catholics, for example of those living in the Holy Land and the promotion of a close partnership inside the global Christian community.
Anna Laura Magyarlaki
Anna Laura Magyarlaki is a Hungarian undergraduate student in the Eastern European campus of Sciences Po, Dijon. She is particularly interested in questions of energy supply, economic development and human rights in developing countries.
[i]BOOTH William: « Pope Francis hosts Israeli, Palestinian leaders at ‘prayer summit’ », The Washington Post, 08.06.2014
[i]« Pope kicks off Mideast Peace Summit of Prayer », The Time, 08.06.2014.
[ii] GREEN Emma: « The Pope’s Holy-Land Trip Wasn’t About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Francis’s visit was fraught with tensions, but its focus was clear: uniting the world’s Christians », The Atlantic, 27.05.2014
[i]« Pope to lead Israeli-Palestinian peace prayer », Aljazeera America, 08.06.2014.
[i]« Still an awkward relationship: The pope’s visit should improve Jewish-Christian relations: no easy task », The Economist, 24.05.2014.
[ii]JOHNSON, Toni: « Vatican-Israel Relations », Council on Foreign Relations,12.05. 2009. .http://www.cfr.org/holy-seevatican/vatican-israel-relations/p19344
[iii]SAN MARTIN, Inés: « Pope leads ‘invocation for peace’ for Mideast: Peres and Abbas meet at Vatican in prayer summit », The Boston Globe, 08.06.2014.