Sunday, April 26, 2009

Hopes for the Pope

By Akiva Eldar

In a few weeks' time several dozen Catholics, perhaps 100, will travel the checkpoint route from the Gaza Strip to Bethlehem in the West Bank in order to greet Pope Benedict XVI. The pope will not go to them; they will come to him - assuming that Israel keeps its word and permits them to leave the besieged Strip for several hours. In a recent letter to the Vatican 40 prominent Christians from the territories begged the Holy See to add Gaza City to the Pope's itinerary. They want to show him and the dozens of cameras that will record his visit the destruction left by Israel in the city. They know that Israel will present the pictures from the President's Residence and from the Pope's meeting with the prime minister as a seal of approval from the head of the Catholic Church for Operation Cast Lead. Millions of Muslims the world over, including most of the Palestinians living in the territories, will examine every word the Pope says during the masses he holds here. His insult to the Prophet Mohammed at the start of his tenure is still fresh in their minds.

The visit's organizers insist that the Pope has no intention of mixing politics and religion, and that all he wants is to make a pilgrimage to the Christian holy places and to deliver words of peace and conciliation at them. The wounds of the embarrassing slipup surrounding Holocaust denier Bishop Richard Williamson have not entirely healed, and the anti-Semite hunters in the Jewish world will be on the alert for every word that the Pope utters in Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Nazareth. But silence would be interpreted as ignoring, or even accepting, the situation of the Christian community in the territories (which numbers about 40,000, including about 10,000 Catholics).

Like the Muslim majority, the Christian minority will soon be marking 42 years under the Israeli occupation. For more than eight years, since the outbreak of the intifada, they have been forced to wait at the checkpoints with everyone else, and the vast majority are not permitted to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the other holy sites in East Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The heads of the churches, monasteries and seminaries complain that the Israeli authorities are less than generous in approving requests from students for the priesthood in Jordan and other Arab countries to come to the territories.

Experience from the visit of Pope John Paul II in March 2000, prior to the Second Intifada, teaches that there will be people ensuring that the visit of his successor will not end with prayers to God on high for peace to prevail once again in the Holy Land.

In the previous visit, during an interfaith encounter, then-Palestinian ambassador to the Vatican, Afif Safieh, shouted at then-chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau. Afterward, during a press conference at Orient House in East Jerusalem, Safieh told the masses of reporters covering the visit that he was one of tens of thousands of Palestinians who were studying abroad in 1967 [when Israel occupied the West Bank in the Six-Day War] and have not been permitted to return to their homes since then. He called on the Pope to help to open the gates to Palestinian Christians who have been sentenced to exile.

Hanan Ashrawi, at the time a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, added that the Latin Church, which organized the mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, bowed to Israeli pressure and barred the participation of Palestinian leaders, Ashrawi among them. Faisal Husseini did not miss the opportunity to point to Israel's restrictions on the movement of Palestinians during the papal visit as proof of Jerusalem's being an occupied city.

Jewish to his kishkes

Father David Neuhaus, one of 15 members of the planning committee appointed by the Catholic Church in the Holy Land, is trying to avoid political minefields. On the eve of his appointment as head of the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community last month, he bid farewell to his friends from Women in Black who demonstrate every Friday near the Prime Minister's Residence. Neuhaus, 47, a South African Jew who became a Catholic priest, also resigned regretfully from the steering committee of the human rights organization B'Tselem (but he wants people to know that during the disengagement from Gaza friends came to his church wearing orange ribbons, the symbol of opposition to the withdrawal).

Neuhaus immigrated to Israel on his own when he was 15. He studied at a Jerusalem boarding school and in 1978 he won first prize in a quiz on the history of Jewish settlement in Israel. He had already begun the process that ended, in the early 1990s, in his joining the Catholic Church. His parents, traditional Jews from Germany, suffered but respected his decision. The term "convert" makes him angry. He respects Jewish tradition and he celebrated the Passover seder with friends, religious Jews. "I have a very strong sensitivity for the Jewish roots of the Church, for its ongoing connection with the Jewish people and with Jesus' Jewish identity," Father Neuhaus said. He feels a part of Jewish, not only Israeli, society and culture: "It's in my kishkes," he said.

The Hebrew Speaking Catholic Vicariate in Israel has four centers: in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Haifa and Be'er Sheva. It was founded in the early days of the state, with the arrival of mixed families from Central and Eastern Europe. Usually these were Catholic women who had married Jews and baptized their children. There were also clergy (Neuhaus: "Don't say 'priests.' In Judaism that has a negative connotation") who came in the wake of the Holocaust in order to cultivate solidarity and understanding with the Jewish people. There were also Jews who had converted to Christianity and who decided, after the Nazis "revealed" their Judaism to them, to begin a new life in Israel.

Over the years the number of Hebrew-speaking Catholics has decreased from 2,000 to 300. Many assimilated into Jewish life, while and others returned to their country of origin, usually the Commonwealth of Independent States and France. One reasons for leaving is the difficulty in giving their children a Christian education outside the Arab communities. At this rate, Father Neuhaus may be the last appointed leader of the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community in the Holy Land.

A Jew, a Catholic and a Druze

The Israeli liaison with the Vatican ahead of the Pope's visit is a 53-year-old Druze from Isfiya. Bahij Mansour exchanged a military career (deputy brigade commander with the rank of lieutenant colonel) for a diplomatic one (the first Druze ambassador to Angola). As head of the Foreign Ministry's religious affairs section he spends a significant part of his time negotiating with Vatican representatives over the status of the Church's many assets in Israel. The negotiations began with the 2002 Arrangements Bill, supplementary to the state budget, which requires Church institutions to pay taxes.

Mansour represents the official Israeli viewpoint, according to which a Church-owned hospital and guest house must pay property taxes. The Church argues that the revenues that Israel can expect from these institutions are negligible compared to the revenues from the Christian tourists who will accompany the Pope during his visit. The Church says that canceling the tax exemption not only represents a change to the status quo but could also bring down the Church. Church officials ask why the diplomatic agreement signed with the Church in 1993, that they had hoped would also solve the tax issue, has not yet been voted into law by the Knesset.

The dispute occasionally reaches undiplomatic tones. The Foreign Ministry would be happy to end the dispute that casts a shadow on relations with the Holy See before the Pope's visit.

Next week Mansour and his colleagues from the finance and the justice ministries will meet, for the umpteenth time, with Church legal experts. The chances that an agreement will be signed are not great.