Pope Francis brings together Imams and Rabbis at the Vatican

Pope Francis brings together Imams and Rabbis at the Vatican

by Abdallah Schleifer

Only this Pope could have done it.

Pope Francis inherited the creditability that his predecessors as pontiffs of Catholicism have built up over the past few decades with Jews in general - and Israel in particular - by atoning for historic associations with anti-Semitism and their acknowledgement of Judaism as a legitimate religion.

So now, he could afford to build up credibility with Arabs in general and Palestinians - in particular on his recent visit to the region, by flying directly from Amman to Ramallah to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, rather than via a stop-over from Israel’s Ben Gurion airport.

And his references in remarks were to the Palestinian state, not as previously pro-forma to the Palestinian people.

But his most breath-taking gesture during his visit was that spontaneous stop at the Separation Wall for a moment of reflection and prayer en route from his meeting with Abbas to Jerusalem to meet with Netanyahu and at the very spot where Palestinian youth - no doubt knowing his itinerary - had painted “Free Palestine” on the wall.

The Israelis were quick to react with a slick maneuver rather than visible rage, insisting that the Pope adjust his schedule to make a similar visit and prayer at a memorial to Israeli victims of terrorism (meaning by inference, Arab terrorism). And Pope Francis, for all his spontaneity, was equally quick to grasp the seriousness of the situation for the Israelis and not only visit their monument but also to condemn terrorism.

Aura of spirituality

Given the aura of a spirituality that almost borders on a state of innocence, only Francis could insist in all sincerity that this latest event - held on his doorstep in the Vatican - was not political.

Sunday’s gathering of the pope, Peres and Abbas saw delegations of Rabbis (mostly Israeli) and Muslim Imams (mostly Palestinian) sitting in one section of the spacious Vatican garden while high ranking Catholic clergy sat in one long line in another side of the garden.

Facing them, at some distance, to the left and right of the pope, were Abbas and Peres – all three in stately chairs spaced almost embarrassingly well apart.

When one thinks of a meeting at the Vatican, one thinks of the soaring dome of St. Peter’s Cathedral, the hushed and soaring space of an interior that can resonate with chanting and prayers, or in less liturgical terms, of a serene library.

But the site - as much a vast lawn as a garden, suggested a royal court where foreign leaders had come to call, and there was something curious about prayers - Muslim, Jewish and Catholic - being read in unison or by individuals in such a setting.

But in a sense that sort of setting is also in its own way authentic, for the Vatican City is also by statute an independent mini-state within the Italy ruled by the Pope, as well as the seat of a great world religion.

Necessary neutrality

The choice of the garden however was necessary for a neutral ground, chosen it is said at an Israeli request - reportedly from an Orthodox Jewish perspective.

According to Jewish Orthodoxy, Jewish prayers cannot be offered up before a Cross, which is at the spiritual heart of any Catholic Cathedral or chapel.

So the Pope could invite Peres and Abbas to come to Rome and join him in prayer and Peres would accept (if the Pope had invited Netanyahu the Israeli Prime Minister might just have demanded of the Pope - as he now demands of the Palestinians - that first the Vatican acknowledge that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish People.

Of course, I joke, but I also suggest there is insight inside that joke – Peres still had to secure the permission of Netanyahu and his cabinet before officially confirming the verbal acceptance he had given the Pope days earlier in Jerusalem.

That permission, begrudgingly given if one follows closely Netanyahu’s comments about the trip, only came through a few days ago. And the permission itself only came through days after a the announcement of a new Fatah- Hamas unity cabinet of theoretically non-partisan technocrats had been announced by Abbas and the Hamas leadership and promptly denounced by Netanyahu.

Numerous warnings

The Israeli prime minister had already warned on numerous occasions that a Fatah-Hamas unity cabinet would close the door to any further negotiations.

So will this really mean anything in terms of a breakthrough, of an Arab-Israeli agreement based on a two-state solution - in turn based on a viable Palestinian state, and not a theoretically two-state string of disconnected Arab Bantustans as Netanyahu understands, but something more akin to the pre- 1967 green line between Israel and the West Bank including Arab Jerusalem, as well as Gaza?

Immediately after the announcement, almost all cautious official spokesmen and commentators had only words of hesitation and doubt even before this evening of prayer had begun.

And given the events of the past 125 years that have followed the-then British imperial government’s announcement of the Balfour Declaration, pessimism has a lot going for it.

Consider the high hopes for a comprehensive settlement when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat shook hands standing on the White House lawn in September 1993.

In terms of subsequent diplomatic accomplishment little progress has been made. Even that historic handshake nearly did not happen; Rabin hesitated and Clinton had to guide the Israeli President’s arm towards Arafat’s hand.

Perhaps it was necessary theatre considering the mobilization then underway by the Israeli Right against that the Oslo Agreement ratified so-to-speak by the two leaders meeting on the White House lawn.

And for all of that, Rabin was still to be assassinated by a young Israeli shaped not only by his settler background and political culture, but by a vicious election campaign of full-throttle hatred for Rabin that Netanyahu was party to, which immediately preceded the killing.

‘The greatest Israeli’

But that was 1995, and so much has changed since then. In a serious poll of Israeli popular opinion carried out by a major Israeli news service ten years after his assassination, Rabin was voted “the Greatest Israeli.”

And polls for the past ten years show that a slim majority (but a majority nevertheless) of both Israelis and Palestinians (at least in the Occupied territories) still favour a two-state solution.

Of course, the same Israeli public will also swing behind hard-line right wing politicians at the first signs of threats to Israeli security – which is how the Israeli public interpreted the violence of the Second Intifada or the suicide bombings of Israeli civilians.

But today, the state of Israel is more isolated internationally than ever in its short history, and a former Israeli prime Minister can declare that without peace the state of Israel is doomed within thirty years.

And even the U.S. secretary of state can imply or say off record that it was Israeli intransigence that undermined and eventually aborted this past frustrating year of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, while the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against all aspects of the Israeli settlements gather increasing support in the West.

Of equal importance, this extraordinary exercise in the Vatican garden - what can be characterized as “spiritual diplomacy” initiated by Pope Francis and all those Muslims, Jews and Catholics, who were joined by the Orthodox patriarch who prayed (each according to their tradition) for peace - suggested that religion so terribly exploited by extremist elements within both Israeli and Palestinian camps, within Muslim and Jewish communities, can just possibly be the until now unexplored pathway to peace rather than as has been the case, to terrible conflict fuelled by religious rhetoric.

Necessary peace

Tonight Peres – the very man who signed the Oslo Agreement as then Israeli prime minister, and now at the age of 90 and about to step down as the country’s ceremonial president, repeated that however distant peace seemed, it must be pursued and it must happen.

And while Abbas spoke most directly of the need of the Palestinians for a peace that means statehood, justice and dignity, and thus was seemingly more overtly political than Peres, in fact his speech quickly gave way not to a short prayer at the end, to tie it all up, as Peres did, but a long invocation of God in the words of the Quran.

Those words were that he who wills peace upon all, and states again and again that Compassion and Mercy are His Names, calls upon all Muslims to incline to those who seek peace and enter into the higher life of compassion and mercy.

To Muslims, this is all familiar, but is too easily forgotten in the passion of politics and conflict, and all but unknown by nearly all Jews and Christians.

If only for that, and to hear these two leaders exchange the greetings of peace - of both shalom and salaam - is in itself what might turn out to be a significant step forward.


Cross published on Al Arabiya News and TAM with permission of the author.

Abdallah Schleifer is a veteran American journalist covering the Middle East and professor emeritus at the American University in Cairo where he founded as served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for TV and Digital Journalism. He is chief editor of the annual publication The Muslim 500;  a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (USA) and at the Royal Aal al Bayt Academy for Islamic Thought (Jordan.)  Schleifer has served as Al Arabiya Washington D.C. bureau chief; NBC News Cairo bureau chief; Middle East correspondent for Jeune Afrique; as special correspondent (stringer) , New York Times and managing editor of the Jerusalem Star/Palestine News in then Jordanian Arab Jerusalem.


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