Pope Francis’s May 2014 visit to the Holy Land was significant for two reasons: The first, in highlighting the growing peril faced by Christians in the Middle East; and the second, due to the important symbolic contribution he made to the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Pope was accompanied by friends from his native Argentina, Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Omar Abboud, and all three shared an embrace at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The scene of a Muslim, a Jew and a Christian together in a warm embrace would not look out of place on Israeli postal stamps, as it captures the essence of modern Israel: a melting pot of different backgrounds, languages and cultures.
In particular, the Pope’s visit allowed the global spotlight to shine upon the role of Christianity in the Holy Land. At a time when Christians are facing persecution on an unprecedented scale across the globe, and specifically in the Middle East, they are thriving in the Jewish state. Ambassador Daniel Taub recently wrote in the Daily Telegraph, reflecting upon the Pope’s visit, “Christians are among Israel’s foremost figures in every sector of society, from the Knesset, to the Supreme Court, to the elite group of outstanding individuals to be awarded the Israel Prize, Israel’s highest civic honour.”
Much has been written about the Pope’s prayers nearby three vertical constructs, which are meaningful for Israel in different ways: the Western Wall, the security fence, and the memorial for victims of terror. The Wall, all that remains of the Second Temple, embodies Israel’s spiritual connection to the land and to Jerusalem. It reminds Israelis of past destruction, of the fragile present, and of future aspirations. The security barrier, most of which is a fence and some of which is walled, is a reminder of Israel’s security challenges, and has successfully prevented scores of terrorists from murdering Israeli citizens. At the third construction, the Memorial to the Victims of Terror at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl, the Pope prayed for the victims, declaring “enough with terrorism,” which he decried as “a dead-end street.”
These three stops are significant because they symbolise Israel’s yearning for a better future, the heavy toll that has been paid by Israelis, and finally, the ongoing confrontation, which is still at our door and begs to be resolved, so that a lasting peace can be reached with our Palestinian neighbours.
Pope Francis also had a chance to admire Jerusalem’s churches and mosques whilst meeting with community leaders. Walking where the characters of the Bible walked thousands of years ago, Pope Francis’ trip was saturated with scriptural significance, as he met the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, atop the Mount of Olives where Jesus taught, before planting a tree in the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed, and taking Mass in the room where the Last Supper is believed to have been held.
The Pope has found his way into the hearts of many both within and beyond the global Catholic community, leading him to be recognised as Time magazine’s Person of the Year for 2013. Reports abound that he takes delight in phoning up people out of the blue in order to bless and encourage them. He has taken observers of the Vatican by surprise by going through the streets of Rome at night, incognito, in order to distribute alms to the poor.
The visit was thus an important reminder of the challenges faced by Israel, the Palestinians and others in the wider Middle East, to tackle enmities, religious persecution and bias in order to advance a peace that will do away with barriers and walls of commemoration, while achieving a secure and prosperous future for the region.