The pope playing politician

March 28, 2000|By Tom Teepen

John Paul II's trip to Israel was billed as a personal journey of faith and it was no doubt that as well. The pope's passion was manifest and moving.

But the papacy is not apolitical. No pope can travel without making political waves, least of all this one, who has had active political and human rights agendas. So it was in Israel and in the West Bank, which Israel has been ceding to Palestinian control in increments.

Indeed, everything there -- business, study, archaeology -- is political, so John Paul's presence and comments could not have been read as innocent of political implications and purpose even if he had wanted them to be. And clearly, he did not want to go unheeded.

The pope strongly advanced the ministry he has brought to the renunciation of Christian denigration of Jews and Judaism, on which his own church's authorship has been writ large. John Paul has devoted to this healing task a unique sensibility and strength of commitment. His commentary at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial, was historic.

The pope pulled up short of acknowledging church and papal complicity-by-indifference in the Holocaust, a disappointment, but the burden of that history weighed in his words. The confession was little less palpable for being implicit.

Israelis necessarily negotiate in clear-eyed calculation of their security, but in a state founded in no small part as a refuge from 2,000 years of a Christian animus broken only by spells of "tolerance" here and there, credible assurance of Christendom's religious goodwill can broaden the context in which those calculations are made.

That said, on the ground, the Vatican's tilt toward the Palestinian side remains clear and unhelpful.

The Vatican refused to recognize Israel until 1994. It rejects Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. John Paul in February held his ninth meeting, no less, with Yasser Arafat and asserted "the Holy See's solidarity with the Palestinian people."

The pope's expressions in the West Bank of sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians were apt as far as they went but were empty of any apparent recognition of the culpable intransigence of Palestinian leadership and its Arab-state backers.

With thousands dead from another war and from decades of terrorism against Israel, Palestinians are only now near to getting from their begrudged negotiations something akin to what Israel freely offered after the 1967 war.

There's realpolitik mixed with John Paul's human-rights plea for Palestinians. The Vatican no doubt foresees Palestinian sovereignty, and the pope is putting the church in a position then to protect the remnant Christian population and access to Christian sites.

Perversely, Israel's good record of stewardship over the shrines of all faiths, contrasted to the spotty record of Arab regimes, works against the Vatican's willingness so far to put itself as square with Israel as the pope has worked to put his church with the Jewish people.

Tom Teepen is national correspondent for Cox Newspapers.

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