After the pope

Ecumenism: Peace is more necessary when the great faiths are brought closer together.

March 29, 2000

THE MIDDLE EAST is a smaller place since Pope John Paul II came and went. He didn't make peace among its residents, but has made them see how near each other they are. The pontiff's prayer at the Western Wall did as much as one man's gesture could to heal a millennium of distrust and worse between Jews and Catholics.

His service at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher rekindled the bond among Christians, especially with the Orthodox churches.

His recognition of Yasser Arafat and presence at a refugee camp acknowledged the reality and suffering of the Palestinians.

The obstacles that Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Mr. Arafat must overcome to make peace defy the imagination. That either could give up Jerusalem is nearly unthinkable. That they could agree on the future of Israeli settlements defies probability. Yet they have proceeded on the assumption that they can overcome -- each, no doubt, confident the other must give in -- and now they have added reasons to achieve accord.

The likelihood that they would do so propelled President Hafez el Assad of Syria to see President Clinton in Geneva. The Syrian does not want to be left out if peace is being made. Neither, that summit seemed to suggest, does he wish to conclude it.

Mr. Assad might have stayed home. Mr. Clinton is no nearer to bringing Israel and Syria together, which is his allotted role once they are ready. Perhaps more visible progress on the Israel-PLO front is needed to convince Mr. Assad that that is going to happen.

The pope has helped to bring Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, Judaism and Islam closer to brotherly recognition of their commonality. It was not a bad week's work.

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