Thursday, May 14, 2009

Pope Benedict in Israel

Today was the highlight of Pope Benedict's visit to Israel. His message of peace and reconciliation between Christians and Muslims was delivered before 50,000 people at an open air Mass in Nazareth, the largest Arab city in Israel. The message appears to be well received, even Al Jazeera has favourable coverage:

Al Jazeera's Sherine Tadros, reporting from the scene, said about 50,000 people had gathered to listen to the pontiff. "There's a real sense of exitement and pride here as the ground mass gets under way.

"This is the largest Arab city in Israel so it's a great source of pride that the biggest mass of the papal pilgrimage is taking place here.

During the mass the Pope said Christians and Muslims should,

reject the destructive power of hatred and prejudice. . . Sadly, as the world knows, Nazareth has experienced tensions in recent years which have harmed relations between its Christian and Muslim communities, I urge people of goodwill in both communities to repair the damage that has been done, and in fidelity to our common belief in one God, the father of the human family, to work to build bridges and find the way to a peaceful coexistence.

This is clearly the biggest challenge of his journey and indeed one of the biggest of his papacy to foster a more healthy and respectful relationship between Christians and Muslims. It's a tough road especially with the violence and hatred spewed out by Islamic extremists. Many Christians are simply moving away to avoid the conflict. The Jerusalem Post reports that the Holy Father tackled this issue head on:

"While understandable reasons lead many, especially the young, to emigrate, this decision brings in its wake a great cultural and spiritual impoverishment to the city [of Jerusalem]," he said. . .

In his speech, the pope said he would like to "speak directly to the tragic reality - which cannot fail to be a source of concern to all who love this city and this land - of the departure of so many members of the Church community in recent years. Today I wish to repeat what I have said on other occasions: In the Holy Land there is room for everyone!"

I hope that his words have power to encourage Christians in the Holy Land and to help earn respect from Muslims as well. I think they might. Benedict XVI did a lot to set the stage for this message earlier in his visit. In addition to remembering the holocaust and lamenting the violence against Israelis, he also called for a Palestinian State and said he hoped Israel's security wall will come down. His words were kindly received by Arabs and demonstrate that he's well aware of both the suffering felt by Palestinians and the legitimate fear felt by Jews and Christians.

The overtures to Muslims were tempered by the Pope's decision to walk out of a meeting on interfaith dialogue after an out burst by a muslim cleric. That decision was principled and sent a strong message that respect and reason are essential to any discussion on faith or peace in the Middle East.

The Pope had a lot to accomplish on the visit from strengthening ties with Israel to building bridges with Muslims and supporting local Christians. Despite critics that were ready to jump at every supposed gaffe, such as using the word 'killed' instead of 'murdered,' I believe Benedict accomplished all 3 goals while staying true to Church teaching. This is no small feat and I'm thankful God allowed it to happen.

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