One thing is certain – Pope Francis is a unique pope. He’s been described as the “people’s Pope” and a man of grace, peace, understanding and inclusion. Andrew Sullivan referred to him as an “untier of knots” and as he heads off to the Holy Land, he is about to confront the world’s largest knot – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Needless to say, that is one huge knot to untie!
As you watch the news, look for a few things. First of all, Pope Francis will do things that anger and please both the Israelis and Palestinians. His itinerary reflects this fact and the Israelis and Palestinians are already talking about it. He will show strong support for a sovereign Palestinian state when he travels from Jordan directly into the occupied West Bank rather than passing through Israel. Needless to say, this is a huge symbolic lift to the Palestinian push for a sovereign state, but it angered the Israelis. Just for the record, George W. Bush was the first U.S. President to call for the creation of a Palestinian state and Barack Obama has continued this policy. On the other side of the coin, Pope Francis will be the first Vatican leader to lay a wreath on the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism. Honoring the man who envisioned the Jewish state is a huge statement of support for Israel, but it angered some Palestinians.
Even though Pope Francis is calling this trip a “religious” not “political” trip, he is keeping both in mind throughout his trip. His ecumenical and political outreach will begin before he even arrives in Israel as he is beginning his trip traveling with a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim imam from his native Buenos Aires. In Bethlehem, he will meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but also hold a mass in Manger Square. In Jerusalem, he will visit the Western Wall, Mount Herzl and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, meet the President, Prime Minister, Chief Rabbis and Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, but also hold a mass on Mount Zion, the site of Jesus’ last supper.
So what can you do? First of all, pray for the Pope. He is stepping into one of the most highly charged regions on the planet and he needs the prayers of all people of faith. Second, pray that he is able to inspire both the Israelis and Palestinians to renew their push for peace. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is stalled with no leader on either side willing, able or courageous enough to take a bold step for peace. And do you really blame them? When Anwar Sadat of Egypt made peace with Menachem Begin of Israel at Camp David under the facilitation of Jimmy Carter in 1978, he was assassinated three years later by a right wing Islamic group opposed to peace. When Yitzhak Rabin of Israel made peace with Yassar Arafat of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the Oslo Accords, sealing the accord with the historic handshake in the presence of Bill Clinton in 1993, he was assassinated two years later by a right wing Jewish fanatic opposed to peace.
So, who can break this logjam? Who can motivate and inspire these two people, who have been destined to live together on a small piece of land, to make bold moves for true peace? Pope Francis? The “untier of knots”? Maybe. Who knows. As he said just recently,
To that we can all say “Amen” and continue to pray for the peace of Jerusalem.