Pope Benedict’s trip is off to a good start and the intense media coverage (1,300 journalists covering the trip by one estimate) is already bringing much needed attention to the plight of Christians in the Middle East. The Bishop of Rome has a deep appreciation for Eastern Christianity, as did his predecessor John Paul II. In his Vespers homily delivered in the Greek-Melkite Cathedral of St. George in Amman, Benedict said this:
The ancient living treasure of the traditions of the Eastern Churches enriches the universal Church and could never be understood simply as objects to be passively preserved. All Christians are called to respond actively to the Lord’s mandate — as Saint George did in dramatic ways according to popular record — to bring others to know and love him. In fact the vicissitudes of history have strengthened the members of particular Churches to embrace this task with vigor and to engage resolutely with the pastoral realities of today. Most of you trace ancient links to the Patriarchate of Antioch, and your communities are thus rooted here in the Near East. And, just as two thousand years ago it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians, so also today, as small minorities in scattered communities across these lands, you too are recognized as followers of the Lord. The public face of your Christian faith is certainly not restricted to the spiritual solicitude you bear for one another and your people, essential though that is. Rather, your many works of universal charity extend to all Jordanians — Muslims and those of other religions — and also to the large numbers of refugees whom this Kingdom so generously welcomes.
Present for the homily were His Beatitude Gregorios III Laham, the Greek Melkite Patriarch, Emeritus Archbishop Georges El-Murr and His Excellency Yaser Ayyach, Archbishop of Petra and Philadelphia. Also attending were representatives from other Churches in the East — Maronite, Syrian, Armenian, Chaldean and Latin — as well as Archbishop Benediktos Tsikoras of the Greek Orthodox Church.
Benedict’s visit was anticipated with some anxiety by local Catholics, who recalled the angry reception his September 2006 Regensburg speech received in the Muslim world. In an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz a few days before the trip, the Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, was hoping that there would be no more of that.
The thing that worries me most is the speech that the pope will deliver here. One word for the Muslims and I’m in trouble; one word for the Jews and I’m in trouble. At the end of the visit the pope goes back to Rome and I stay here with the consequences.
But he also spoke plainly about problems with the Israeli authorities, chiefly the roadblocks that impede travel.
“It is hard to move priests, it is hard to move nuns among hospitals. It is hard to get to funerals, it is hard to come to weddings. The entire functioning of our priesthood is hampered,” he said.
However, Twal acknowledges that there is another aspect to this difficulty, which is even more distressing.
“I have a hard time with the total distrust that the government of Israel evinces towards us,” he said. “You can trust us and you can even get help from us.”
Twal is aware of what are seen as improved Jewish-Christian relations. He listens patiently to a description of Jewish claims that in contrast to Muslims, “It’s possible to live with Christians,” while the Muslims in the territories and in Israel are envious of the Christians “who have a big brother in the Vatican.”
“We don’t derive any benefit from what the two sides see as preferential status,” he said. “At the roadblocks, even priestly garb doesn’t help.”
Twal does not agree with the claim that all the open complaints by the Christian community are always directed at the Jews while troubles with Muslims are swept under the rug.
“I say openly that we have serious problems with the Muslims and with the strengthening of Islam in the region,” he says. “Christian families in Bethlehem are suffering quite a bit. However, this too is a result of the weakening of the central government in Palestine. When Islam gets stronger we suffer. When the regime gets weaker, we suffer. Look at what is happening to our people in Iraq.”
See also the AP story “Palestinians seek papal pressure on Israel” for more on this.
Hamdi Murad, a professor of religious studies at the University of Jordan, told the Catholic News service that she was sure that Benedict’s visit “opened a new, pure and white page for relations between Muslims and Christians. This also has closed that page that had some — if we can say — misunderstanding between Muslims and Christians. So we have many hopes and wishes for the future after this visit.”
Nader Twal, a Christian tour guide, put Benedict’s trip into perspective for the Zenit news agency:
“I, as a Christian, always say that I am Arabic, Jordanian and Christian,” he explained. “We Christians make up 3% [of the population of Jordan], Catholic are 1.5%. We see in this visit a support for the presence of Christians, we who’ve been here 2,000 years.
“The visit is also important because it has brought about the meeting of the Pope with the king and queen, with the leaders of the Muslims, and this is decisive to speak about existing together, about human elements, not dogmatic ones: themes that affect this region of the Middle East, which is always in conflict.”
According to Twal, who is accustomed to presenting the biblical richness of Jordan, when the Pope goes Sunday to the banks of the River Jordan where Christ was baptized, it will be one of the most symbolic moments for the future of Christianity in Jordan. The Holy Father will be blessing the cornerstones for two churches to be built there, one for Latin-rite Catholics and the other for Greek-Melkites.
“Unfortunately, this site that is found at the origin of the Christian faith is still forgotten, even by the Church,” Twal lamented. “The [Pope's] blessing is a gesture that calls attention, as it will be followed by the 1,300 journalists covering this trip: a call to the Church of all the world. A visit to Jordan should be an important part of pilgrimages to the Holy Land.”