Pope Must Defy Expectations – Again Print
By Joseph Wood   
Wednesday, 13 May 2009

The pope is in the Middle East. Wars, oil wealth and corruption, tyranny, terrorism. What good can come out of that troubled part of the world? Especially when every move he makes and word he utters is being subjected to sharp and often less than well intentioned scrutiny? And by people seeking to use the visit to their own advantage?

Many Muslims and Jews, not to mention secular denizens of the region, are skeptical of this pope, as are even many Middle Eastern Christians. The New York Times reports that the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Fouad Twal, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “The thing that worries me most is the speech that the pope will deliver here. One word for the Muslims and I’m in trouble; one word for the Jews and I’m in trouble. At the end of the visit the pope goes back to Rome and I stay here with the consequences.”

So the pope has his work cut out. What can he expect to achieve?

In direct practical terms, he will achieve very little. A two-state Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement is far off, given the security concerns of the new Israeli government and the disarray of the Palestinians themselves. Progress on such an agreement is not part of the Holy Father’s agenda in any event. Nor is forestalling Iran’s nuclear ambitions, minimizing violence in Iraq, or establishing pluralist governments.

Even in matters of direct relations between the Holy See and Israel, practical progress is unlikely. The two parties signed their Fundamental Agreement with mutual diplomatic recognition in 1993. Since then, procedures on taxation and property dispute resolution have been under discussion, but languish. Some in the Vatican thought that final agreement on those procedures should have been a condition for the pope’s visit to Israel. Although the pace of negotiations seemed to quicken in recent months, unless a diplomatic surprise is imminent, no solution is in view. In fact, some see in the details of this visit a step back from the latitude that Israel granted Pope John Paul II in 2000.

So, what good can come out of this trip to the Middle East? First, the pope has been continuing to emphasize the importance of the marriage of faith and reason, the real theme of his Regensburg lecture and the subject of a crucial debate both within Islam and in the West. He mentioned this as he arrived in Jordan and, in a later meeting with Muslim leaders, spelled it out further: “[The] challenge [is] to cultivate for the good, in the context of faith and truth, the vast potential of human reason. Christians in fact describe God, among other ways, as creative Reason, which orders and guides the world. . . .In fact, when human reason humbly allows itself to be purified by faith, it is far from weakened; rather, it is strengthened to resist presumption and to reach beyond its own limitations. In this way, human reason is emboldened to pursue its noble purpose of serving mankind, giving expression to our deepest common aspirations and extending, rather than manipulating or confining, public debate.”

The pope also remarked, “I come to Jordan as a pilgrim, to venerate holy places that have played such an important part in some of the key events of Biblical history.” He has repeated the notion of pilgrimage throughout his trip. In doing so, he reminds governments in the region and elsewhere of the importance of these holy sites and the responsibility to protect them. The world’s Christians have also seen that this region matters greatly to us in ways not usually reported in newspapers. Perhaps most importantly, Christians in the Middle East have been encouraged by the pope himself to remember that they live in the land from which salvation came, and that their continued presence there is essential.

That message is critical. In Jordan, the pope repeatedly affirmed the importance of religious liberty, a good thing in short supply in the region: “Religious freedom is, of course, a fundamental human right, and it is my fervent hope and prayer that respect for all the inalienable rights and the dignity of every man and woman will come to be increasingly affirmed and defended, not only throughout the Middle East, but in every part of the world.“

Christians in the area, of course, face enormous pressures. Around half of the pre-2003 Christian population in Iraq has fled in the wake of violence directed specifically against them; much of the remaining population is displaced within Iraq. The Christian population of the Palestinian territories, squeezed between extremist violence and Israeli security measures, is dwindling. Supporting Christians in the Middle East is the principal purpose of the pope’s pilgrimage, and he urgently called upon diplomats and the international community to help them.

Pope Benedict has proven over and over that his warm presence and rigorous intellect have a far-reaching and lasting impact wherever he travels. By reminding us of the Good that came out of this troubled region, he may succeed in once again turning skepticism into renewed hope. That’s well worth a journey.

Joseph Wood is a former White House official who worked on foreign policy, including Vatican affairs.

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