POPE SHOWS COMPASSION TO ARABS AND JEWS
Pope John Paul II is physically
frail, but he spoke with powerful moral authority about the ''degrading''
and ''barely tolerable'' refugee camps that hundreds of thousands of
Palestinians have had to live in since Israel took their land 52 years ago.
''No one can ignore how much the
Palestinian people have had to suffer in recent decades. Your torment
is before the eyes of the world. And it has gone on too long,'' the pope
However, what he saw in the
Dehaisheh Camp, where 10,000 people are forced to live in less than one
densely packed square mile - HAS been ignored by the Israelis, by the
millions of Christian tourists who whisk by such camps in tourist buses, and
by the Western press.
I remember how shocked I was in
visiting the camps in 1988 during the ''intifada,'' the uprisings which
ultimately sparked negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis. In Gaza
camps, raw sewage flowed in gutters along very narrow streets, down to a
cesspool of stinking filth. Every window had been knocked out by Israeli
soldiers. Unemployment was over 50 percent.
The intifada violence was grossly
disproportionate. Yet that was not being reported. The Washington Post and
The New York Times ran daily stories about Arab youth throwing rocks. At the
time of my visit, 195 Palestinian youth had been killed vs. only two Israeli
soldiers. And 20,000 Palestinians had been injured, according to UN
officials who supervise the camps, vs only 210 injured Israeli soldiers.
Thus, Palestinian death and injury rates were 100 times higher!
Thankfully, that era of violence is
over. But the Palestinian camps remain, and the Pope is the first world
leader in my knowledge to visit them, bringing the world's press to see the
squalor that a million Palestinians are forced to live in.
In the Dehaisheh Camp, the pope
spoke in a school courtyard, articulating a more empathetic understanding of
the hardships of refugee life than many Palestinians had ever heard from an
outsider. But as he talked of their deprivation, many of the refugees milled
about, chatting as if what he had to say was irrelevant.
Why? Incredibly, his speech, which
was in English, was not translated into Arabic. ''So the pope's piercing
words sailed over their heads into the chill of the afternoon,'' wrote The
New York Times. ''You have been deprived of many things which represent the
basic needs of the human person: proper housing, health care, education and
work,'' he said. ''Above all, you bear the sad memories of what you were
forced to leave behind, not just material possessions, but your freedom, the
closeness of relatives, and the familiar surroundings and cultural
When they learned what they had
missed, several refugees said that if they had understood, the pope's words
would have been drowned out in cheers.
The papal gesture did move Suha
Arafat, the wife of Yasir Arafat, to exultantly tell reporters that the
pope's presence was ''a clear message for an independent state,'' which it
On Thursday, the pope visited the
Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, laid a wreath in memory of the six million
Jews who perished in the Nazi genocide, among them childhood friends from
Poland. He also expressed contrition for Christian persecution of Jews
throughout history, and called for a new relationship between the two faiths
based on their common roots:
''As bishop of Rome and successor the Apostle
Peter, I assure the Jewish people that the Catholic Church, motivated by
the Gospel law of truth and love, and by no political considerations, is
deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of
anti-Semitism directed against Jews by Christians at any time and in any
Some Jews were disappointed that he
did not assign any blame to the Catholic hierarchy. or mention Pope Pius
XII, the wartime pontiff accused of being silent during the Holocaust.
However, Roosevelt and Churchill were also silent.
The true blame lies with Hitler and
the Nazi regime.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak
called the visit to Yad Vashem, ''a climax of this historic journey of
healing,'' and told the pope: ''You have done more than anyone else to bring
about the historic change in the attitude of the Church toward the Jewish
people...and to dress the gaping wounds that festered over many bitter
Of course, the Pope also visited
historic Christian sites, celebrating Mass in Manger Square near the
traditional site of Jesus' birth. Later he descended to the grotto where
Mary is believed to have given birth, where he prayed for 15 minutes.
But what will be remembered are his
compassionate words to two wounded peoples.
Copyright 2000 Michael J. McManus.