Pope Francis's visit to the Holy Land at the end of May was clearly a show of Holy See support for the Christian communities in the Middle East. These difficult times, said the Pope, necessitated the unification of the regional Christian sects so that they might retain a foothold and stand firm in the face of radical Islamist attacks against them.
The Pope had supported the Christian community during the Arab Spring, throughout which the Christian minority was exposed to murder, rape, raids and persecution at the hands of radical Islamists, leading to mass emigration.
In effect, the Pope's visits to the Christian holy sites in Jordan (where Jesus baptized John), Bethlehem (the Church of the Nativity) and Jerusalem (the Church of the Holy Sepulcher), divided the sites, de facto, into those located in Jordan and Israel on the one hand, and those in the Palestinian Authority on the other.
By going to Jordan first, the Pope signaled that the Holy See did not regard it as an alternative Palestinian state but rather an independent country. In Bethlehem, where he celebrated a mass, he called for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, thereby indicating his support for a Palestinian state in what is currently the Palestinian Authority: the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It was another way of telling the Palestinians to stop fantasizing about liberating all "Palestine" -- referring the area from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, that is, the entire state of Israel -- and to be happy they had their own territory, to which, and only to which, all the descendants of the original refugees who chose to leave Israel (then called Palestine) in 1948 could return. The Pope's endorsement of, and support for, the establishment of a Palestinian state was a positive landmark and an act of justification for the Palestinians.
The Palestinians' reception for the Pope was professional and worthy of the nascent Palestinian state but it included two deliberate acts that severely damaged the Palestinian cause.
The first occurred during the Pope's mass in Bethlehem. The muezzin of the central Bethlehem mosque, in a tactless and deliberate act of provocation, used the loudspeaker to call the Muslims to prayer at the mosque, interfering with the mass and preventing the Pope from being heard. Unfortunately, the Palestinian Authority leadership cannot or will not control the Islamists in Bethlehem, and could not or would not prevent them from indulging their need to show the entire world that the voice of Islam is louder than Christian prayers.
The second act occurred when the leaders of the Palestinian Authority took the Pope to the separation fence near Bethlehem. The fence was erected by the Israeli government to prevent suicide bombers from infiltrating Israeli territory. The Pope stood there, silent, looking uncomfortably at the fresh graffiti sprayed the previous night about "the liberation of Palestine." His Palestinian hosts called it the "apartheid wall" -- a trick that was not only transparently false but an insult to the leader of the Catholic Church. Every Christian knows the all-too-real security objectives of the fence.
Pope Francis approaches the separation barrier near Bethlehem. (Image source: Screen shot from AlJazeera video)
As for charges of "apartheid," there is not a single Israeli Arab citizen willing to give up his Israeli ID card -- a choice that embarrassingly contradicts this Palestinian contention. In the past, the Israel's right-wing Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, suggested to the residents of the Israeli Arab city Umm al-Fahm the option of moving the city border to within the Palestinian Authority. They would retain their houses, lands and property, and relinquish only their Israeli citizenship. They refused outright.
We cannot lie to ourselves. There is not one single Israeli Arab willing to give up Israel's "apartheid" in exchange for the rule of the Palestinian Authority. Its amateurish propaganda only serves to destroy its credibility. As a result, even Palestinian claims that are actually just are disregarded as false and absurd.
The Palestinians' mistakes continued unabated. The Pope visited Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount, which is controlled by Israel. The Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, explained to the Pope that Jesus was the first Palestinian and that Jerusalem was being "Judaized" by Israel.
The Mufti, who regularly denies the existence of the Jewish Temples in Jerusalem, tried to impress upon the Pope the right of Christians and Muslims to Jerusalem, but denied the rights of the Jews, thus exposing his ignorance and distorting historical fact. He made himself look like an idiot and a liar, and caused only antagonism for Islam in general and the entire Palestinian cause in particular. The entire meeting then turned into a farce: it is part of Christian history that Jesus was a Jew and that some of his actions in Jerusalem were conducted in the Jewish Temple. Denying its existence and the existence of the historical rights of the Jews to the land not only borders on idiocy, but on the denial of the Christian narrative of Jesus's entire mission, as well.
Moreover, for quite some time the Palestinian media has been reporting the Palestinian leadership as calling Jesus "the first Palestinian shaheed [martyr]" killed by the Jews, a claim that is spectacularly ridiculous.
Jesus -- for anyone capable of doing the math -- lived in Judea 600 years before the birth of Islam, and 100 years before Hadrian had changed the name of Judea to Palestine; and he was crucified by the Romans, not the Jews, as formally acknowledged by the very Catholic Church the Palestinians were hosting.
The Palestinian attempt to represent Jesus as a Palestinian shaheed -- a symbol of the suicide bomber and a servant of Palestinian terrorism -- exposes the depth of Palestinian ignorance.
Even the Qur'an says the Jews did not kill Jesus, so he can be neither Palestinian nor a shaheed. (Surah An-Nisa', 4:157. "And they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him ... they did not kill him, for certain." -- Sahih International translation.)
With the complaint that the Christian and Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem were being "Judaized" by Israel, the meeting between the Pope and the Mufti went from absurd to surreal. The "Judaizing" claim is an internal Palestinian contradiction because if the Palestinians deny that the Jews of today are the descendants of the ancient Israelites and refuse to recognize Israel as the national homeland of the Jews, Jerusalem would have nothing to do with the Christians, either.
Most incongruously, the Mufti was both patronizing and arrogant in pretending to care about Christian interests at a time when senior sheikhs are responsible for the murder and persecution of Christians in the name of Islam throughout the Palestinian Authority and the Arab states.
Given the Palestinians' strategic mistakes during the Pope's visit, it was not surprising when he expressed his reservations about Palestinian militancy and terrorism by saying, simply, "May no one abuse the name of God through violence." The Pope thereby rejected the Palestinian and Islamic propaganda inciting violence against Christians and Jews as well as to jihad in the name of "Allah."
The Palestinian tragedy of errors worsened even further with the success of the Jews during the third and final phase of the Pope's visit to Jerusalem, where he met with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. The Pope laid a wreath on the grave of Theodor Herzl, the visionary behind modern Zionism, and visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum and the memorial for the victims of terrorism.
The wall of the memorial is inscribed with the names of the thousands of Israelis killed in suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks perpetrated by Palestinian and Islamic terrorist organizations -- almost all before the security fence was built. The memorial therefore only underscored what a non-violent and even peaceable response the fence actually is.
The Israeli prime minister explained to the Pope that Jerusalem was the capital city of the State of Israel and that it would never be divided again. He added that preserving the status quo was the key to religious coexistence and freedom of worship, in which Israel was without equal and for which there was no precedent around the world.
There is no doubt that during these troubled times for Christians in the Middle East, the objective of the visit to the Holy Land by the Pope -- as Christianity's most important pilgrim -- was to show religious support, not only of the Holy See but of millions of Christians, for their suffering brethren.
The deepest tragedy was that throughout the visit, Palestinian blunders and indiscretions made it politically no less important. Both the message sent and the message received support the continued rule of the Jews in Israel in general and Jerusalem in particular.
The Pope gave a warm Christian embrace to the Jews, an additional affirmation of the Vatican's recognition of Israel and of Jerusalem as its capital.
Unfortunately, as usual, the Palestinians chose a policy of propaganda, historical distortion and fraud -- and again lost out. As the Arab proverb has it, "the rope of deceit is short."