Mideast dialogue in need of Pope Francis’ blessing

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Jesuit clergy are known for their exceptional communication skills. These skills were tested this week during Pope Francis’ visit to Jordan, Israel and Palestine. The selection of Pope Francis to replace Benedict XVI as the new leader of the Catholic Church was greeted with immense expectations for a new reformist Pope, who is more down to earth approachable and in touch with the church followers’ daily lives. In his fifteen months in office, he has succeeded thus far in fulfilling the majority of these expectations. A visit to the Middle East will always be tricky for the head of the Catholic world, despite the region being as much the cradle for Christianity as for Judaism and Islam. However, the number of followers of the Catholic Church in the Middle East are far and few between.

His three day visit to Jordan, Israel and with the Palestinian Authority came at a very delicate moment in an already fragile part of world. The peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians, in which religion is playing a significant part, is in tethers and religious extremism is ever-present across the region. A visit, especially at present, to the place which is host to holy places for all three monotheistic religions is highly symbolic. This required his holiness to use all of his diplomatic skills and charm. His message was one of peace and friendship, an important one in this volatile region. It has special importance for Christians as they are a minority in the region and are far from feeling secure. Despite a very courteous welcome in Israel by government and religious leaders, there were segments in Israeli society, especially among the ultraorthodox, that would rather not see such a visit taking place at all, for either religious or historical reasons.

Taking the decision to be the first pontiff to fly directly to the West Bank and calling it the “the State of Palestine” was a clear and direct message to Israel

Yossi Mekelberg

All papal international visits are driven by a high octane of symbolism, but none more than a visit to the Holy Land. Pope Francis managed to steer away from direct confrontation with his hosts, but did not avoid addressing major controversies. His gestures as much as his words expressed a strong will of the Catholic Church under his leadership to play an active role in bringing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a peaceful solution. Taking the decision to be the first pontiff to fly directly to the West Bank and calling it the “the State of Palestine” was a clear and direct message to Israel about the Holy See’s stand on the long overdue two-state solution and the Israeli occupation. He was adamant that the latest failure in the U.S. peace initiative should not act as a deterrent from continuing the efforts to bring peace. On the contrary, Francis insisted that, “there is a need to intensify efforts and initiatives aimed at creating the conditions for a stable peace based on justice, on the recognition of rights for every individual, and on mutual security.” This position makes clear that he perceives the current situation as depriving many of justice and rights, and hence peace “must resolutely be pursued, even if each side has to make certain sacrifices.”

Boldest expression of his disapproval

Pope Francis’ boldest expression of his disapproval of the occupation was manifested in his decision to pray in front of the security wall just in front of graffiti saying “Free Palestine.”

This act, just before leaving the occupied Palestinian territories and starting his visit in Israel, was a powerful message against what the wall symbolizes. He was under no illusion that this gesture would displease his Israeli hosts, yet was still determined to carry it out. Israel usually tries on papal visits to avoid political confrontation with the Vatican and instead concentrates on improving their relationship with the Christian world and encouraging Christian religious tourism. For the Palestinian leadership, it is also an opportunity to promote this type of tourism. Nonetheless, considering the media attention paid to the Pope’s visit, it was also a great opportunity for President Abbas and other Palestinian officials to drive home their message of the intolerability of the absence of Palestinian self-determination and the damage caused by the constant expansion of Israeli settlements.

The relationship between the Holy See and the Jewish state has always been a delicate affair, considering the history of Jewish persecution at the hands of the Catholic Church, and especially its behavior during the Holocaust. Only 20 years ago, Israel and the Vatican established diplomatic relations, and since then it has been a long haul of a healing process. The visit is part of this step-by-step long road of reconciliation. Many Jewish people, especially from European origins, are still very suspicious of the Catholic Church and its true intentions. A group of extreme right-wing Jewish protesters expressed their feeling by causing disturbances at the King David’s Tomb complex in Jerusalem. They protested against Pope Francis’ visit to Israel in general, but also because they claim that Israel and the Vatican are edging closer towards an agreement that will transfer the control of the Cenacle in Jerusalem to the Holy See. It was denied by both the Vatican and Israel, but because the site is situated above David’s Tomb, it prompted protestations and provided an opportunity for those who were against this visit in the first place to make their feelings known. They were, however, a small minority compared with the majority in Israel that is either apathetic or passively skeptical towards a visit by foreign religious dignitaries, even if it is the pope himself.

Reconciliation towards the Jewish people

Counter balancing his visit to the separation wall with a last minute unscheduled stop at the Memorial to the Victims of Terror at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl would indicate the pope is aware of the complexity of the conflict, responsive to Israeli sensitivities and ready to find a suitable act to avoid a rift. Pope Francis’ visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the Holocaust, praying and honoring the victims and survivors, as did two of his predecessors, was another act of reconciliation towards the Jewish people. However, many would regard this more genuine if the pontiff will allow access to the Vatican’s archives from the Holocaust period, which would most probably reveal the extent of the Vatican’s knowledge about the Holocaust and when they received that information.

Beyond all the symbolism of Pope Francis’ visit to the Middle East, it also emerged that this particular religious leader has an ambition to play a part in the peace process. The visit, no doubt, contributed to strengthening relations with Palestinians and Israelis alike. Nevertheless, Francis’ invitation to host a prayer summit meeting at his apartment in the Vatican, for the Israeli and Palestinian presidents, signals that he might have an ambition to become involved as a peace broker where everyone else has thus far failed. The peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians seems desperate for some divine intervention, though even this might prove not to be enough for both sides to reach a peaceful end to their conflict.


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

Last Update: Wednesday, 28 May 2014 KSA 09:25 – GMT 06:25

Under pressure to convert, Zanzibar Christians concerned for future

 Fr. Evarist Mushi, who was shot dead at the entrance of his church in Zanzibar in 2013. Credit: Aid to the Church in Need.

Fr. Evarist Mushi, who was shot dead at the entrance of his church in Zanzibar in 2013. Credit: Aid to the Church in Need.


.- Members of the small Christian minority on the Tanzanian islands of Zanzibar are suffering intimidation and now fear that their children will be coerced to convert to Islam, one resident said.

“If we go to church on Sunday, we have to go through a crowd of people who often try to intimidate us,” a Catholic man speaking under the pseudonym Matthew Limo told the Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need.

The houses around Limo’s church belong to Muslims.

“They often shout that we are fools to go to church or that our women are naked. In fact, the Muslim women are all covered from head to toe,” he said.

Limo said that he personally does not feel intimidated, though he noted that many of the harassers’ comments are “directed towards women and children.”

His parish has about 400 members, though only 200 regularly go to Mass. About 98 percent of the Zanzibar archipelago residents are Muslim.

Limo voiced concern about his children’s future.

“At home we try to encourage and to teach them a love for Christ and the Church. But we are insecure about what others do,” he said. “We often hear stories about Muslims trying to convert children. Sadly enough we need to tell our children to be careful in building friendships with Muslim children.”

A trend of violent attacks on churches and individual Christians began on the Zanzibar islands in December 2012.

Father Evarist Muchi, a 55-year-old Catholic priest, was shot to death when his car arrived at the entrance of St. Joseph’s Cathedral for Sunday Mass. A Protestant minister has also been killed.

Father Ambrose Mkenda suffered serious injuries in another attack, Aid to the Church in Need reports.

The perpetrators have not been caught and many local Christians say local police have at times obstructed the investigation and distorted evidence.

Limo said the perpetrators are not outsiders but locals who have been “radicalized.” He said they have been trained by the Somalia-based terrorist group Al-Shabab. He said the organization is linked to the religious group Uamsho, which aims to establish an independent Islamic state in Zanzibar.

While Limo said he feels generally safe to leave home and to travel, he added that the atmosphere can become “explosive” in election years.

“On the street, people try to embarrass you or to make you angry. In periods like that I come home early and do not go out in the evening.”

The next election will take place in 2015.

Some anti-Christian violence has also taken place on the Tanzanian mainland. In May 2013 an attack on a newly opened Catholic parish killed three and injured 60. Two Tanzanians and four Saudi nationals were arrested for the attack.

In February 2014, Bishop Bernardin Mfumbusa of Tanzania’s north-central Diocese of Kondoa blamed the violence on the “infiltration of foreign Jihadis” and the return of native-born Muslims who had been radicalized abroad.

The bishop told Aid to the Church in Need that most Tanzanians of different religions live together well. He noted that Christian-Muslim tension in Zanzibar is “not new,” though he said the “vast majority” of people on Zanzibar would prefer to live in peace.


Taken from: http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/under-pressure-to-convert-zanzibar-christians-concerned-for-future/

More on the Christian sentenced to die for her faith

May 21, 2014 By Gene Veith ….

More details about the Sudanese woman we blogged about who was sentenced to hang because she would not renounce her faith is married to an American. Her father was a Muslim, so her conversion constitutes apostasy. Also, marrying a Christian constitutes adultery, for which she was sentenced to 100 lashes. Since she is pregnant, the flogging and the hanging will not take place for two years, until the child is born and weaned. The new development is the information that her husband is an American. As would be her child. She has another child, Martin, who is 18 months old and who is being imprisoned with her. Both children would also be Americans citizens.

From Michael Avramovich, Sudanese Christian Sentenced to Death – Mere Comments.

Mariam Ibrahim Yahia, a pregnant woman of 27, was sentenced last week to death by hanging in Khartoum, Sudan, for converting to Christianity. Mrs. Ibrahim was also convicted of adultery for having married a Christian man. Her husband, Daniel Wani, is an American citizen. (Yes, you read that correctly.) The sentence for her “adultery” will be 100 lashes.

The Honorable Judge Abbas al Khalifa asked Mrs. Ibrahim whether she would return to Islam. She replied that “I am a Christian,” upon which Judge al Khalifa handed down his death sentence. In response to the verdict, the embassies of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands have issued a joint statement expressing “deep concern” about the case, and urged Sudan to respect the right to freedom of religion. Sudan, however, follows Islamic sharia law. . .

Reportedly, Mrs. Ibrahim’s father was Moslem, but abandoned the family during her childhood, and she was raised by her mother, an Orthodox Christian from Ethiopia. She was given several days to recant her Christian faith in order to escape the death sentence. However, when she declared that she is a Christian, she was sentenced to death. Mrs. Ibrahim and her husband were married in a church wedding in 2011, and have an 18-month-old son, Martin, who, of course, is eligible for American citizenship, and is now with her in jail.

Pope Francis Heading to Holy Land With Rabbi and Imam as Interfaith Wing Men

Abraham Skorka and Sheik Omar Abboud Join Pontiff’s Trip

By Ruth Gruber


Published May 19, 2014.

getty images


(JTA) — With a rabbi and a Muslim sheik as his travel companions, Pope Francis is heading to the Middle East with what he hopes will be a powerful message of interfaith respect.

It will be the first time that leaders of other faiths are part of an official papal delegation. The aim is to send “an extremely strong and explicit signal” about interfaith dialogue and the “normality” of having friends of other religions, chief Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi told reporters.

Starting Saturday, the three-day pilgrimage will take the 77-year-old pontiff to Jordan, the West Bank and Israel. The packed agenda includes courtesy calls on government leaders; open-air Masses; meetings with Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious authorities; and visits to holy sites of the three religions.

The two men joining Francis are friends with whom the pope frequently collaborated when he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires: Rabbi Abraham Skorka, former rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires, and Sheik Omar Abboud, a former secretary-general of the Islamic Center of Argentina.

“I don’t expect Francis to wave a magic wand and bring together Jews and Palestinians,” Skorka told the Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenire. “But his charisma and his great humility can give a powerful message of peace for the whole Middle East.”

Since being elected to the papacy in February 2013, Francis, the first non-European pope in more than 1,200 years, has become known — and widely hailed — for breaking protocol, shunning the grand trappings of papal power and reaching out to the faithful on a personal level.

On his upcoming trip, Francis has insisted that he will not travel in a bulletproof vehicle or special Popemobile. Rather, he’ll get around in “a normal car or open-topped jeep” in order to be closer to the people who come out to greet him, according to the Vatican spokesman.

Eric Greenberg, the director of communications, outreach and interfaith for the Multi-Faith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, said Francis’ ability to captivate world media means every step of his visit will be watched closely.

“There will be opportunities to deepen the important bilateral relationship between Catholics and Jews, and to boost the larger dialogue among Catholics, Jews and Muslims,” Greenberg said.

Francis will begin his trip in Jordan and proceed the next day by helicopter to Bethlehem for a 6 1/2-hour stay. He will meet there with Palestinian officials, celebrate an open-air Mass in Manger Square and visit with children from Palestinian refugee camps.

The official Vatican program says the pope will be visiting “the state of Palestine,” which has prompted rumors that the Vatican may announce recognition of an independent Palestinian state.

From Bethlehem, Francis will fly by helicopter to Ben Gurion Airport and then to Jerusalem. He will visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust center and the Western Wall, where like his predecessors Benedict XVI and John Paul II, he will leave a message in a crack between the stones.

The pope also will visit Christian sites and the Temple Mount, a site that is sacred to both Jews and Muslims and the locus of recent clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians protesting Jewish visitors.

In recent years, the Vatican has made the state of Christians in the Middle East a priority issue. Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, the top Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land, said this month that the recent spate of anti-Christian graffiti attacks by Israeli Jewish extremists “poisons the atmosphere of coexistence” surrounding the papal visit. He chided Israeli authorities for not cracking down.

Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s international director for interreligious affairs, said the media attention resulting from the papal trip has prompted some action to be taken against the extremists.

Francis will be the fourth reigning pope to visit Jerusalem. His trip marks the 50th anniversary of the first papal visit to the Holy Land, Pope Paul VI’s pilgrimage in January 1964. On the trip, Paul’s meeting in Jerusalem with Patriarch Athenagoras, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians, was a major first step toward reconciling the 1,000-year rift between Western and Eastern Christianity.

The centerpiece of Francis’ stay will be his meeting with Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew and an ecumenical joint prayer service with leaders of other Christian churches in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

Paul’s trip, the first by a reigning pope outside of Italy, came in a vastly different context than today in terms of Jewish-Catholic and Vatican-Israel relations. The visit came one year before the Second Vatican Council promulgated its Nostra Aetate declaration, which opened the way to interreligious dialogue between Catholics and Jews.

It also took place decades before the Vatican and Israel established diplomatic relations with a Fundamental Agreement signed at the end of 1993. During his stay in Jerusalem, Paul did not even pronounce the word “Israel.”

For the past 20 years, Israel and the Holy See have attempted to reach agreement on several outstanding bilateral issues, including establishing the juridical rights of the Catholic Church in Israel as well as regulating property and taxation issues.

Just ahead of the pope’s visit, Israeli officials quashed rumors that Israel planned to transfer the Cenacle — the site where Jesus’ Last Supper took place — to the Vatican. Francis is to celebrate Mass at the Cenacle, which is revered by Christians.

Jews venerate the site as King David’s Tomb, and on May 12, hundreds of haredi Orthodox protested there demanding that Israel retain control.

All of these factors and more mean that it is impossible to separate bilateral Israel-Vatican relations from Catholic-Jewish relations, the AJC’s Rosen says.

Papal visits to Israel, he said, demonstrate “the remarkable new Catholic and Christian positive affirmation of the roots of its identity and its commitment to the welfare of the Jewish people.”

Moreover, he said, “I greatly hope that there will still be an opportunity for an interfaith encounter with local representatives of the faiths communities in this land somewhere on the papal itinerary. I actually think that to bring along an Argentinian rabbi and imam is very nice, but if there is no interfaith meeting with the locals, it might be seen locally as rather disingenuous.”

Read more:http://forward.com/articles/198481/pope-francis-heading-to-holy-land-with-rabbi-and-i/#ixzz32IVTDuZN

Palestinian Israeli Conflict: Officials Claim Pope Francis Visit Sign Vatican Opposes Occupation

Pope Francis Palestine Israel

Pope Francis talks to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (L) during a private audience in the pontiff library at the Vatican last year Reuters


Palestinian Authority (PA) officials are heralding Pope Francis’ visit to Bethlehem as a political message to “recognise Palestine” and “oppose the [Israeli] occupation”.

The pontiff is set to travel in an open-top car through Bethlehem before meeting President Mahmoud Abbas, holding a mass prayer service in the Palestinian town instead of Jerusalem.

“He is taking a helicopter directly from Jordan to Palestine – to Bethlehem. It’s a kind of sign of recognising Palestine,” Father Jamal Khader of the Latin patriarchate in Jerusalem said.

“Knowing who he is, and his sensitivity for all those who suffer, I am sure that he will say something defending all those who are suffering, including the Palestinians who live under occupation,” Khader continued.

After visiting Bethlehem, the Pope is set to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Notre Dame complex located between Jewish and Arab populations in Jerusalem. Yet, it is his visit to Palestine that is garnering most of the attention from officials on both sides of the divide.

“This visit [to Palestine] will help us in supporting our struggle to end the longest occupation in history,” said Abbas’s adviser for Christian affairs, Ziyyad Bandak.

Bandak said that Francis “will have a lunch with Palestinians, with families suffering from the occupation…then he will visit Dheishe refugee camp to witness the suffering of Palestinian refugees”.

He continued by saying that Israeli officials are not happy that the “the Pope will begin his visit in Palestine and not Israel”, interpreting the decision to be a slight against the Jewish homeland.

“We welcome this visit and consider it as support for the Palestinian people, and confirmation from the Vatican of the need to end the occupation,” the PA adviser concluded.

The PA’s claims of a political message being delivered by the Pope has been supported by reports earlier this year when Rabbi Sergio Bergman, a close friend of the pontiff and member of the Argentinian parliament, said that Francis wishes to style himself as the “Che Guevara of the Palestinians”.


Taken from: http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/palestinian-israeli-conflict-officials-claim-pope-francis-visit-sign-vatican-opposes-occupation-1449142