The Catholic church has taken an increasingly active role in the Middle East—especially the Holy Land.
The pope met with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in early December at the Vatican. According to the church’s press office, the two leaders discussed the “complex political and social situation in the Middle East, with particular reference to the reinstatement of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, expressing hope that a just and lasting solution respecting the rights of both parties may be reached as soon as possible.”
Such a direct interest in Mideast politics is new for the Catholic church, which has generally practiced a policy of non-involvement. A United States diplomatic cable from 2001 said that “the Holy See denies wanting to become involved in the political” issues of the Middle East.
According to the Los Angeles Times, “Diplomatic relations between Israel and the Holy See were established in 1993. Since 1999, the two sides have been negotiating a long list of outstanding issues, including the status of the Roman Catholic Church in Israel, requested sovereignty over certain sites, and taxation and expropriation of church assets in the country. Last year , Israeli officials involved in talks said resolving these matters would bring a ‘historic upgrade of relations.’”
The Jerusalem Post stated, “Israel and the Vatican have a convergence of interests on a number of matters, and ‘some of the same forces that threaten Israel are threatening Christian minorities across the region,’ [an Israeli diplomatic] official said.”
Since Israel became a nation in 1948, there have been only three papal visits to the Holy Land.
Paul VI, 1964: “Pope Paul VI spent only 11 hours in Israel. He mainly avoided Israeli-controlled West Jerusalem, refusing to meet with the chief rabbi, Yitzhak Nissim, and forcing Israeli President Zalman Shazar and Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to travel to the northern town of Meggido to greet him in a 20-minute ceremony,” the Chicago Tribune reported.
John Paul II, 2000: Notably 36 years after Paul VI’s visit, one of the high points of John Paul’s trip was that he left a note at the Western Wall. He also delivered a speech that acknowledged the tragedy of the Holocaust and prayed for the forgiveness of those involved.
Benedict XVI, 2009: Pope Benedict’s focus was mainly a pastoral one, the Vatican representative to the Holy Land said. Prior to the visit, the papal envoy in Jerusalem stated at a press conference, reported on by The Jerusalem Post, that the pontiff “comes as the head of the Catholic Church. He does not come as the head of the Vatican state to make a political visit.”
He later stated in the article, “You will be wrong if you read this pilgrimage with political glasses.”
Pope Francis is expected to visit Israel in May 2014. His trip, much like his papacy—which has been marked with unorthodoxy, broad popularity, and intense media attention—is expected to be much different.
“During John Paul II’s declining years, and throughout Benedict XVI’s papacy, the Vatican was more quiet,” James Walston, a political scientist with the American University of Rome told USA Today. “Francis is starting to show he’s willing to be a lot feistier.”
In addition, since he has taken office, Francis has met with Palestinian leaders such as Mahmoud Abbas.
On October 17, the pope welcomed Mr. Abbas to the Vatican and presented him with a gift in appreciation of his efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East, the official news agency of the Palestinian Authority Wafa reported.
According to The Jerusalem Post, Francis gave Mr. Abbas a pen, saying, “Surely, you have a lot of things you have to sign.”
Mr. Abbas responded, “I hope to sign a peace treaty with Israel with this pen.”