Pope's Visit: Great Expectations, Great Disappointment?

Israel's national and Jewish sites will get little facetime during Pope Francis' whirlwind visit - but the government is praying that the photo ops in Bethlehem don't lead to major political fallout.

Ariel David
Ariel David
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Pope John Paul II waves to the crowds as he arrives for a holy mass in Nazareth. March 25, 2000.
Pope John Paul II waves to the crowds as he arrives for a holy mass in Nazareth. March 25, 2000.Credit: Reuters
Ariel David
Ariel David

A papal pilgrimage to the Holy Land is a unique event; one which raises expectations of strong calls for peace, principled political stands and steps forward in the dialogue between the three monotheistic faiths.

All that may yet happen during Pope Francis' whirlwind Middle East tour from May 24-26. But the pontiff himself has made clear that the "main goal" of his "pilgrimage of prayer" is somewhat more limited: Commemorating the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI's visit and especially that pope's meeting in Jerusalem with the Orthodox Christian Patriarch Athenagoras I.

As the first papal visit to the Holy Land, Paul's 1964 pilgrimage was certainly historic, and his meeting with Athenagoras paved the way for better relations with the Orthodox Church after centuries of schism.

But with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in tatters, the Arab world in turmoil and Christian communities across the region dwindling and increasingly persecuted, why is the Vatican framing the trip as a relatively mundane commemoration of a meeting that happened half a century ago?

More about the pope's visit: The gospel according to Francis: Nir Hasson | A Jewish pope? Elon Gilad | Great expectations, great disappointment? Ariel David | What the pope won’t see in Bethlehem: Judy Maltz | Protecting the pontiff: Allison Kaplan Sommer | Too cozy with the church? Anna Momigliano | Israel and Vatican strive to resolve tensions: Ariel David | Jews 'have nothing to discuss' with Vatican: Anna Momigliano | Did the pope say that?!? An interactive quiz | A history of papal visits to the Holy Land: Elon Gilad.

The idea that Francis will follow in Paul's steps must have sent shivers down the spine of many an Israeli diplomat. Though it was the first papal visit, at a time when the Vatican did not recognize the Jewish state, Paul's trip centered on Jordan, which then controlled East Jerusalem and the West Bank. His visit deeply disappointed the Israeli leadership.

In his one-day foray across the Green Line, the pontiff never mentioned the word "Israel" and barely touched on relations with Jews, despite the revolutionary views that were being discussed at that time in the Second Vatican Council. In brief remarks to Israeli authorities, Paul also praised the wartime Pope Pius XII and chastised critics who claimed he didn't do enough to help Jews and other groups persecuted by the Nazis.

Indeed, Francis' three-day program recalls Paul's brief visit rather than the lengthier stays of his immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who traveled the Holy Land for seven and eight days respectively. Unlike his predecessors, Francis will not visit the Galilee or hold a large public event there. Instead, his trip will center on the meeting with Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I in Jerusalem and on masses in Amman and Bethlehem.

While the pope will stop at key Jewish and Israeli sites, something Paul didn't do, those stops seem rushed and secondary, at least on paper. For example, after spending an hour visiting Muslim holy sites on the Temple Mount, Francis is expected – all within 50 minutes - to pray at the Western Wall with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, an old friend from his native Argentina, lay a wreath at the Mount Herzl cemetery and arrive at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
Fortunately, he is not likely to run into traffic.

Make no mistake. The church's ties with Jews and Israel are at unprecedented levels, incomparable to what they were in 1964, and Francis' charisma may well make up for his tight schedule. But by framing the trip as a commemoration of Paul's pilgrimage, the Vatican has sent a subtle but clear message to the politicians and dignitaries who will host Francis.

The message is that any attempt to raise political capital or enlist the pope's support for either side in the Middle East conflict will fail. This is a spiritual pilgrimage, focusing on dialogue with the Orthodox Church and tending to the local Catholic flock; it is not about Jewish ties or apportioning blame for the region's woes. Israel's quiet hope that Francis may finger authorities in the Arab world and the Palestinian territories for the decline of local Christian communities is likely to be disappointed.

Of course, Francis is not a stickler for protocol and may choose to deviate from the Vatican's lead, but for Israel this could lead to even greater problems.
The pope likes to improvise, particularly when addressing large crowds, and the main public event of the trip will be the mass in Bethlehem's Manger Square, not far from Israel's controversial separation barrier. It is not hard to imagine the occasion turning into an indictment of Israel's policies in the West Bank, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, by deeds, words or the simple impact of images showing the wall towering over Jesus' birthplace.

The spate of "price tag" attacks on churches and mosques across the country only further sets the stage for a public rebuke of Israel's behavior toward its minorities.

For Israel, the best bet may be to hope that Francis will enjoy on a quiet, spiritual journey, peppered by generic calls for peace. If the Jewish state's already battered international image emerges without further damage, the Israeli government will be able to count its blessings and pronounce this papal visit a success.

Ariel David is a Tel Aviv-based foreign correspondent for Italian and English-language publications. He was AP correspondent in Rome for five years, covering Italy and the Vatican, reporting on key events in Pope Benedict XVI's pontificate, including his election and his trip to the Holy Land in 2009. Follow him on Twitter: @arieldavid1980

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