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May 29, 2014
Column #1,709
Pope Francis: Hope for Peace in the Holy Land
By Mike McManus

Pope Francis was the first Pope to fly directly to Bethlehem where Jesus was born and to refer to the “state of Palestine ” - to the utter joy of Palestinians.

He made an unscheduled stop at the hated wall separating Bethlehem on three sides from Jerusalem. Francis touched his head to the wall, and prayed next to painted graffiti denouncing “apartheid wall,” and “Bethlehem is like the Warsaw Ghetto.”

Later while standing next to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Francis asserted, “The time has come to put an end to this situation which has become increasingly unacceptable. The time has come for everyone to find the courage to be generous and creative in the service of the common good.”

Abbas responded, “Your visit is loaded with symbolic meaning as a defender of the poor and the marginalized…We welcome any initiative to make peace in the Holy Land.”

Similarly, at the request of Israel, the Pope made an unscheduled stop at the Mount Herzl memorial to victims of Arab terrorist attacks - 78 tablets listing the names of slaughtered Jews. He touched one naming Jews killed in his home of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

At the Western Wall of the historic Temple of Jerusalem, he tucked a note between stones with the Lord’s Prayer, handwritten in Spanish. More poignantly, at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, he met and listened to the stories of six survivors. One had been saved as a baby by a Catholic family. He kissed each of their hands.

Francis was the first Pope to place a wreath of signature yellow and white flowers on the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism.

More important than these symbolic gestures on each side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Pope Francis invited Israeli President Shimon Peres and President Abbas to his apartment in the Vatican to pray together for peace. Both accepted and will meet next week.

Some dismissed the significance of the invitation, noting that Perez, 90, will leave his largely ceremonial post in July. Abbas has also indicated he wants to retire soon. Both are older than Francis who is 77.

However, Perez was one of the founding fathers of Israel in 1948 and has been Prime Minister three times. Francis met privately with Perez at his Presidential Residence in Jerusalem in a “very, very lengthy” one-on-one. The Pope wrote in a guestbook, “It is always the grace of God to come in the house of a man who is wise and good.”

Perez responded by saying “many things about the peace process, the problem of building peace,, the collaboration of religious leaders and the pope in building peace,” said a spokesman for Francis.

Similarly, Abbas was elected President of Palestine for a four year term, but has continued to serve without a re-election. He was a founder of what the UN recently recognized as “the state of Palestine,” though it is not yet an official nation.

What can a day of prayer between a Catholic Pope, and the founders of Israel and of Palestine accomplish?

Perhaps nothing. After all, Secretary of State John Kerry visited the Holy Land multiple times and was utterly unable to jump-start the peace process.

On the other hand, Pope Francis is a spiritual leader who has earned worldwide respect in part because he recognizes the spirituality of others quite different from himself.

In his public remarks to President Perez the pope said, “I am happy to be able to meet you once again, this time in Jerusalem, the city which preserves the Holy Places dear to three great religions which worship the God who called Abraham.

“Peacemaking demands first and foremost respect for the dignity and freedom of every human person, which Jews, Christians and Muslims alike believe to be created by God and destined for eternal life. This shared conviction enables us resolutely to pursue peaceful solutions to every controversy and conflict.”

He urged that “all parties avoid initiatives and actions which contradict their stated determination to reach a true agreement and that they tirelessly work for peace, with decisiveness and tenacity.”

Three old men of three great faiths will gather shortly in Rome to pray for peace and plan steps that might be taken to achieve that great goal. Each knows it would be a legacy to their peoples.

We should all pray they are successful.

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