Pope’s Middle East trip a ‘bridge toward peace’

bilde55.jpgReligious leaders in Metro Detroit hope he speaks on Palestinian-Israeli conflict
Gregg Krupa / The Detroit News
Pope Benedict XVI on Friday will embark on an eight-day trip to much-troubled lands in the Middle East where Christianity is fading and perceived missteps by the pontiff and the Vatican involving Jews and Muslims still echo.

Metro Detroit is home to 1.3 million Catholics and thousands of immigrants from and supporters of the West Bank, Israel and Jordan, where the pontiff will visit. Many local Christians, Muslims and Jews say they expect he will speak directly to their concerns and will look for gestures from him amid the grand theater of a papal pilgrimage.

“The heart of the matter — for Christians, too — is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said the Rev. George Shalhoub of the Antiochian Orthodox Basilica of St. Mary in Livonia, an Eastern Orthodox parish where worshippers include Palestinian, Jordanian and Syrian immigrants. The conflict between Palestinians and Israelis over ownership of the land and sovereignty endangers the dwindling Christian population throughout the Middle East, with Christians caught up inside war zones and Palestinian Christians directly affected, said Shalhoub.


“If the Bishop of Rome, the Holy Father, will address the conflict, especially in the light of the new president of the United States, it may lead to a sincere effort to bridge the gap between East and West,” Shalhoub said, noting renewed efforts from Washington, along with the pope’s visit, could contribute to peace. The pope’s trip is intended as a pilgrimage to Christian holy sites and to boost interfaith relations, according to the Vatican and United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. His stop in Israel will be only the second official visit by a pope.

“This is the land where Jesus walked and taught,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center and Georgetown University. “The church has been in favor of a two-state solution for a long time, and it wants negotiations and to end the violence. But it is also quite concerned about the exodus of Christians from the Holy Land.”

While the Vatican often speaks more forcefully than the U.S. government about Palestinians, American Jews perceive that the church agrees with Israel on the major issues in the conflict.

“The Catholic Church is very much in line with Israel and the American Jewish community on the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians,” said Robert Cohen of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Metropolitan Detroit. “There are probably a few areas where the facts are viewed somewhat differently. But the policy… is not a dividing line.”

Local Palestinians speak of the pope’s role as a moral leader and of his ability to “humanize” the suffering of their people. Some say they wish he would visit Gaza, too, but they hope he addresses the isolation of Gaza. “I am hoping and expecting that the pope alludes to Gaza in most specific terms about ending the human siege that is leading to starvation and people without shelter,” said Hasan Newash, director of the Palestine Office of Michigan.

Coloring the pope’s visit are recent perceived mistakes. Jews were critical of his reinstatement of an excommunicated bishop who denies the Holocaust. And Muslims say the pope strained relations when in 2006 he quoted a Byzantine emperor’s derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad.

But local Muslim and Jewish leaders are willing to put mistakes in the past.

“The fact that he was invited by the president of Israel, Shimon Peres, and he is going to meet with the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, says to me this is going to be a very worthwhile trip,” said Rabbi Joseph Krakoff of Congregation Shaarey Zedek. “People are seeing this as a bridge toward peace.”

“I am not sure that Muslims will totally forget his comments in that speech,” said Imam Sayed Hassan al-Qazwini of the Islamic Center of America. “However, I am sure they welcomed his gesture in reaching out to them, afterwards. In general, relations between the Catholic Church and Muslims are on the right course.”

“The pope can help to at least encourage the relationships between Christians and Muslims and Jews, which will help to preserve the Christian communities,” said Joseph Kassab of the Chaldean Federation of America. “It is important that he listens to the concerns of the Christians about what they are facing, so their communities can be preserved.”