"Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled." Luke 21:24
YOU WOULD THINK Yasser Arafat grew up as an altar boy in a Catholic parish. Nine times since the Oslo process began in September 1993, the Palestinian leader has trekked to Rome to kiss the ring of Pope John Paul II. The latest pilgrimage came in mid-February, two days after Arafat missed a critical deadline that was to have ended Oslo’s interim stage and a month before the Pope is set to embark on his historic journey to the Holy Land.
The two make a curious couple, as their recent encounter at the Vatican attested. Arafat - the Cairo-born Muslim and terrorist kingpin turned peacemaker, donning his trademark keffiyah. The Pontiff - a former Polish priest, venerated Catholic figurehead and eyewitness of the Holocaust, robed as always in stately vestments. As they greeted one another, the Pope reiterated the Holy See’s "solidarity" with the Palestinian people and then retired to quieter quarters with Arafat’s entourage to preside over the signing of a new PLO-Vatican agreement. That agreement, although it touched on a number of significant topics, clarified more than anything else that the driving force between this peculiar relationship - with both men growing more visibly frail with age - is Jerusalem.
The Pope confesses he has dreamt of making the upcoming trip to Jerusalem throughout his 21-year pontificate. The pilgrimage is billed as his very personal quest to trace "the history of salvation" - leaving behind a highly symbolic legacy for future Catholic generations in this Millennial year.
Arafat too confesses his personal "destiny" is Jerusalem. In recent years, Arafat has held court routinely in Bethlehem and Ramallah... on the very doorsteps to the city. But he has yet to step inside. Nine times to Rome, but not even one morning jog to Al Quds? With both Morocco’s King Hassan and Jordan’s King Hussein laid to rest last year, Arafat now stands alone in claiming the prestigious title of official guardian of Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem, notably the Temple Mount mosques. He prefers to make his own highly symbolic entry into Jerusalem at the head of a triumphant Palestinian and Muslim procession to pray on the Temple Mount, without having to pass through one Israeli checkpoint.
ON THE EVE of the Pope’s visit to Jerusalem, it appears he and Arafat have worked out an accommodation in furtherance of their respective dreams. In effect, the Vatican-PLO agreement suggests the Roman Catholic Church is looking to piggyback its interest in an expanded role in Jerusalem onto Palestinian claims to the city - which Arafat is determined to press to conclusion this year, the Jubillennium no less.
But the new Vatican-PLO document - not to mention certain items on the papal itinerary - has raised many sound objections. For one, the agreement upgrades their relationship without adequately addressing the PLO’s long record of atrocities and persecution against Christians, particularly among the pro-papacy Maronite community in Lebanon and the Christian minority now under Palestinian Authority rule. The PA has encouraged Muslim encroachments on Jewish and Christian holy sites and carried out a brutal campaign against Muslim converts to Christianity. Yet at the same time, Arafat has carefully maneuvered in recent years to court favor with the Vatican and Eastern Orthodox church leaders, often playing to residual anti-Semitic sentiments among these denominations. It is demeaning for the Vatican to overlook or condone this sorry mischief.
But the most objectionable aspect of the agreement, despite Vatican disclaimers, is the politically charged language on the issue of Jerusalem. The preamble declares that "unilateral decisions and actions altering the specific character and status of Jerusalem are morally and legally unacceptable." It further calls for a "special statute for Jerusalem, internationally guaranteed, which should safeguard... the proper identity and sacred character of the City and its universally significant, religious and cultural heritage."
Gracious Israeli officials say they will not let the Vatican-PLO accord get in the way of the Pope’s visit in March, but rightly protest its timing and the fact it fails to note that, ever since Israel began administering the entire city in 1967, there has never been as much freedom of conscience and worship and freedom of access to the holy sites of all faiths in Jerusalem. When the last pope visited Jerusalem in 1964, the Vatican never complained about "illegal and immoral" Jordanian and Muslim unilateral actions there - such as destroying Old City synagogues and desecrating the Western Wall. A rather selective moral voice, one has to conclude.
A VOLUME OF GOOD things can be said about this particular Pope’s genuine affinity for the Jewish people and his endeavors to foster conciliation with Judaism and Islam - visiting synagogues and mosques, and boldly preaching tolerance between faiths in his just-completed trip to Egypt. But he is encumbered by the doctrinal, institutional and historical limitations of the Vatican and his office, and may leave Jerusalem regretting - as he did after the Holocaust - that he did not do enough for the Jews.
While in Israel, it would be appropriate for the Pope to acknowledge - as our Scriptures do - that Christianity owes a great debt to the Jewish people, and our faith was born in the cradle and matrix of a Jewish Jerusalem. Jerusalem would have no "sacred character" to "safeguard" for Christians or Muslims, but for the fact it was a "holy city" to the Jews first - at least seven centuries before Christ, according to the message delivered by the Angel Gabriel recorded in the Book of Daniel. The "history of salvation" would never have played out in the streets of this city if Jesus and the Apostles had abandoned their Jewish roots and its esteem for Jerusalem.
When in Jerusalem, the Pope plans to visit the Temple Mount, but has decided not to pray there out of deference to Muslim sensitivities. Yet no where is his moral weight more needed on this historic visit than in challenging the exclusive Islamic claim to that site. From a Christian perspective alone, more events recorded in the New Testament occurred on the Temple Mount than any other single place. Jesus himself verified its universal significance as a "House of prayer for all people." Yet neither Jew nor Christian can pray there today, and Muslim Waqf authorities are not even allowing Christians to take along their Bibles when touring the Mount. It is hollow for the Vatican to demand Israel accede to an international regime in Jerusalem to "safeguard... its universally significant, religious and cultural heritage," while remaining silent about the Muslim vise around the very footstool of God.
A senior figure at the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem voiced concern recently that, "all the Pope’s speeches are already written, but we are nervous he won’t stick to the script." Let us hope he is brave enough to do just that - for his own conscience’s sake.