Prayers and Politics for Israelis and Palestinians

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By Dr Harry Hagopian, Middle East North Africa (MENA) Consultant

During his whistle-stop tour of Amman, Bethlehem and Jerusalem last month, Pope Francis invited Presidents Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas to join him at the Vatican. “I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer”, he stated, and the key question that has been on the minds of many ecumenical commentators is whether there is more to this impromptu invitation than mere prayer between a Christian host and his Jewish and Muslim guests.

I believe that Pope Francis is indeed inviting both leaders for ‘a heartfelt prayer’ on 8 June in the hope that it might well help soften some of the hardened hearts or tackle the mounting cynicism that surrounds any renewed discussion over the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After all, I would quite reasonably posit that it did not take this Pope too long – whether from what he saw with his own eyes or heard with his own ears – to realise that Palestinians are an occupied people thirsting for freedom, dignity and space in order to found a state that they too could proudly call their home.

It is quite true that the Pope’s visit both to Bethlehem and Jerusalem was a masterly exercise in symmetry. The position of the Holy See has always been consistent on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but this pope who thrives on personal contacts did not want either party to criticise him for being partisan. Yet, his roots as a Latin American church leader who is familiar with the whole movement of liberation theology would normally help him empathise with the underdog and the vulnerable in any society. No wonder he stopped unexpectedly in front of the ugly Separation Wall in Bethlehem. No wonder too that he matched this gesture with an equal one in Jerusalem ostensibly at the behest of the Israeli Prime Minister. The message had been sent out. “I hear you”, he said to Palestinians’ “but there is so much I can do personally”.

This explains to some extent his invitation to Peres and Abbas that takes place on a major feast – Pentecost Sunday – for Christians worldwide. No wonder too that Pope Francis extended his Invocation for Peace to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and other religious leaders to join him for prayer and meditation with the two presidents. After all, this Eastern Orthodox Church leader is primus inter pares – first among equals – within the hierarchy of the Orthodox Church. Orthodox Palestinians – and Arabs – form a majority of Christians in the Holy Land and in the broader MENA region.

But what will those prayers do to a conflict whose competing narratives are first and foremost political?

Not too much in my opinion! And frankly, I do not think that Pope Francis expects a sudden transformation that would unshackle the hearts of Israeli or Palestinian political leaders who would then rush headlong into a ‘comprehensive’ deal.

However, the Pope is also acutely aware of the opinion, feedback and positions of the Palestinian churches in the Holy Land let alone of those men, women and children he met during his recent trip to Amman, Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

I believe that the Israeli-Palestinian political impasse is primarily the result of an Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands since 1967. A long-standing occupation has been bleeding the Palestinian psyche dry and emasculating its daily realities. The inexorable colonisation of Palestinian land and the concomitant ‘settlemania’ in Jerusalem or the West Bank are not only grabbing lands and in so doing flouting International law. They are also shifting the demographics of this small parcel of land and rendering a much-mooted ‘two-state’ solution increasingly more impracticable. The spins of the incumbent Israeli prime minister, who is being aided and abetted by a coterie of hard-line ministers, has reached such incalculable proportions that many Palestinians – and certainly the new generations who have never known anything else – are almost too familiar with such a corrosive occupation that is gobbling up their human and national rights.

Have Palestinians been their worst enemies too? Of course, since power-plays are often a feature of most societies that are not ‘democratic’ – in other words, those that are not in control of their own destinies. But Palestinian divisions cannot be an egress for Israeli culpability. With an Israeli cabinet that refuses to discuss peace whether Hamas are in the fold or outside it, and with an international community that puts up disingenuously with the spins coming out of 3 Kaplan Street in Jerusalem (PM Benyamin Netanyahu’s office), even the most dovish Palestinian president – and Abu Mazen is such a dove – cannot deliver the goods. After all, one can lead a horse to water but one cannot make it drink too! Or can one?

Having worked with the ecumenical movement on second-track negotiations, I know they are often helpless – and even clueless at times – in helping resolve political conflicts. Perhaps Archbishop Desmond Tutu is one of the few towering exceptions to this rule. However, I have also come to respect the humbling moral authority some religious leaders bring with them. And this cannot be truer than for Francis who is not only the head of 1.2 billion Catholic Christians but is also marshalling his Petrine moral integrity to encourage the two ageing presidents to inch forward in their quest for peace.

The two presidents in the Vatican on 8 June might not be the men to pen an agreement that frees Palestinians from the yoke of oppression whilst also providing security for Israelis. But with them, the message that Pope Francis is emitting targets the political establishment in Jerusalem well before Ramallah. Bluntly put, if Israel does not wish to end up facing a binational / one state-solution that dwarfs its own Jewish identity, it might as well grasp – belatedly – this olive branch! The alternative is not for more walls in hearts, minds and lands, but alas for more bitterness and inescapable violence.

This article was originally published on Dr Hagopian’s website.