After diplomacy, Pope Francis turns to prayer with Israel and Palestine

Kevin Rafferty on Vatican's plans to host Israeli and Palestinian leaders

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 May, 2014, 9:11pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 May, 2014, 1:42am


More on this story

Pope Francis is either the bravest man in the world or the most foolhardy - a man of angelic daring or a fool entering a fray where even battle-hardened politicians fear to tread.

On his whirlwind trip to the Holy Land in the last week, he showed his sympathy with the Palestinians, prayed at Jerusalem's Western Wall, publicly mourned Jewish Holocaust victims and invited the presidents of Israel and Palestine to the Vatican to pray with him for peace.

Does this offer a real chance for peace in these troubled lands? That is probably taking optimism too far.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has worked tirelessly, travelled extensively and got nowhere. President Barack Obama came to office with admirable, Nobel Peace Prize-winning dreams, but last month gave up on US hopes of being a catalyst for peace. He conceded that, "we haven't seen the political will to actually make tough decisions".

Others, including former World Bank president James Wolfensohn and former British prime minister Tony Blair, have tried and failed to facilitate peace between Israel and Palestine.

The churlish response to the pope's gestures suggests that Francis had also better pray for divine help.

Francis will get his meeting at least. Both Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have agreed to visit the Vatican. But at least one newspaper cynically wrote of "papal propaganda poker".

David Goldman, a respected Jewish commentator on world affairs, said the invitation to pray was "especially confusing", since Peres "is a ceremonial rather than a political leader and has no mandate to negotiate on behalf of Israel".

He twisted the knife, adding: "As far as I know, Peres does not pray. And if he were to pray according to Jewish law, he could not do so easily at the Vatican, because Jews do not pray in the presence of Christian symbols. I do not know Muslim law well, but the same restriction would seem to apply to Abbas."

I have to confess that as a wayward Christian, a Catholic, I am disappointed and amazed at my fellow believers' lack of faith in God. Jews, Christians and Muslims all believe in The Book, and in the same God. Yet this almighty deity is apparently so distracted by small symbols that he cannot receive prayers unless the symbolism is correct.

Pope Francis is doing much to restore the moral authority of the Catholic Church worldwide. But in the Middle Eastern home of Christianity, turmoil and civil wars are driving Christians away. Today there are an estimated 378,000 Christians left in the Palestinian territories.

Obama recognised at West Point this week that military might is only one component of modern projection of power; moral authority is also important. The Thai armed forces still have to understand that guns alone cannot convince people. China still has lessons to learn in its power relations with its neighbours.

Francis demonstrated for the fractious Middle Eastern neighbours the importance of mutual respect. At the sacred Western Wall, he slipped a hand-written copy of the Lord's Prayer in Spanish between the stones. He referred to the Jews as "our older brothers in the faith".

When he visited the Israeli Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem, Francis talked to survivors and kissed their hands rather than offering his own ring for kissing.

He said the Holocaust, known in Hebrew as the Shoah, had no equal in horror. He called it, "a great evil … such as never happened under the heavens."

As for Francis' prayers with the presidents of Israel and Palestine, he had better summon up armies of angels to inspire the leaders that mutual respect must replace hatred and killing.

Kevin Rafferty is a professor at the Institute for Academic Initiatives, Osaka University