Commentary Magazine


Topic: Pope Francis

The Pope is Right: Anti-Israel Does Equal Anti-Semite

Last week, a controversy erupted after a meeting between Pope Francis and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. The encounter came during a celebration of the canonization of two new Palestinian Arab saints and shortly after a treaty in which the Vatican recognized the PA as a state was announced. But whether or not it was due to a misunderstanding on the part of the few journalists present, the Pope was widely quoted as calling Abbas “an angel of peace.” That bit of hyperbole seemed to symbolize Israel’s growing isolation in Europe even if it granted a Holocaust denier and someone who has repeatedly refused to make peace, far more credit than he deserves. But after a week in which the Vatican vacillated about what the pope had really said while not seeking to anger the Palestinians and their backers, Pope Francis has issued not only a clarification indicating that he was misquoted about Abbas but delivering a stinging rebuke to Israel’s foes.

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Last week, a controversy erupted after a meeting between Pope Francis and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. The encounter came during a celebration of the canonization of two new Palestinian Arab saints and shortly after a treaty in which the Vatican recognized the PA as a state was announced. But whether or not it was due to a misunderstanding on the part of the few journalists present, the Pope was widely quoted as calling Abbas “an angel of peace.” That bit of hyperbole seemed to symbolize Israel’s growing isolation in Europe even if it granted a Holocaust denier and someone who has repeatedly refused to make peace, far more credit than he deserves. But after a week in which the Vatican vacillated about what the pope had really said while not seeking to anger the Palestinians and their backers, Pope Francis has issued not only a clarification indicating that he was misquoted about Abbas but delivering a stinging rebuke to Israel’s foes.

As the Times of Israel reports:

In comments made to veteran Portuguese-Israeli journalist Henrique Cymerman Thursday, Francis was quoted as saying that “anyone who does not recognize the Jewish people and the State of Israel — and their right to exist — is guilty of anti-Semitism.”

Francis was also said to have backtracked on statements he was reportedly heard making earlier this month designating the visiting Abbas “a bit an angel of peace.”

The pope recalled telling Abbas in Italian that he hopes the Palestinian chief might one day become an angel of peace in the future, according to Cymerman — although ostensibly he has not yet reached that level.

This resolves any doubts about whether the New York Times, Agence France Presse and the Associated Press misquoted the pontiff. He says they did, and that ought to be enough to have them issued corrections rather than further articles rationalizing their mistake.

But the pope’s comments about anti-Semitism are far more important than his evaluation of the corrupt and undemocratic head of the Palestinian kleptocracy in the West Bank.

Israel haters have long claimed that their anti-Zionism should not be confused with anti-Semitism. They claim they have no problems with Jews in general, just with those who assert sovereignty in their ancient homeland.

But this formulation is and always has been a false and utterly misleading distinction.

Those who would deny to Jews the same rights of self-determination and self-defense that they would never think to deny any other people on the planet are practicing a form of discrimination. Anti-Zionists assert that Jews are uniquely unworthy of a homeland or any of the other normal attributes of identity. While it is true that Judaism is a combination of faith and national identity, the fact remains that denying the Jews a right to a state that is specifically Jewish singles them out for treatment not given the practitioners of other faiths or peoples. Since the term by which we refer to acts of bias against Jews is anti-Semitism, the claim that anti-Zionism is not a form of prejudice is simply a great lie.

This is a vital point because anti-Zionists aren’t so much protesting specific Israeli actions or making a point about where they think its borders should be located. Rather, they seek to deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, which is to say they want it to be destroyed.

That’s the reason why groups that espouse BDS — boycott, divest, sanction — programs aimed at Israel are practicing hate, not merely putting forward criticisms of the country’s policies. One needn’t support everything any Israeli government does or agree with its prime minister on the issues. But those who say that Israel shouldn’t be a Jewish state and that it has no right to be one should be treated as bigots.

This is a message that Palestinians should heed. Abbas has consistently refused to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders might be drawn. Indeed, even if he wanted to do so, which is doubtful, his people cling to a political culture in which violence against Jews is treated as laudable rather than shameful. The two-state solution to the Middle East conflict that the pope and many others champion will only be possible once the Palestinians stop trying to replace the Jewish state and start learning to live with it in peace. Abbas and his predecessor Yasir Arafat repeatedly rejected offers of statehood in which they would be given control of almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and a share of Jerusalem but refused each time because they could not come to terms with Israel’s existence. Rather than beating up on Israel as the world community continues to do, those who want peace need to take the pope’s message to the Palestinians.

The Vatican did nothing to help end the conflict by recognizing the PA as a state without first requiring it to make peace with Israel as it was required to do by its Oslo Accords commitments. In doing so the Church seemed to be joining the crowd putting unfair pressure on Israel thus betraying the ecumenical legacy of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II who did so much to reverse centuries of Catholic prejudice against Jews. But Pope Francis has now made up for those mistakes with a statement that ought to resonate throughout the world and in history. Let all those who wish to undermine the Jewish state while still pretending to be unprejudiced and all those who excuse or apologize for their hatred pay heed to what he has said and end the charade by which these anti-Semites are treated as decent members of the community. As the pope has now taught us, anti-Zionist will always really mean anti-Semite.

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The Pope’s Better Angels of Peace

It turns out Pope Francis may not have called Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas “an angel of peace.” That was the quote reported by the Associated Press, Agence France Presse and the New York Times on Saturday night and led to my response here criticizing the pontiff for uttering such an egregious comment the following morning. Speaking the way about a man who was a Holocaust denier, a funder and organizer of terrorism, presides over a government and media that routinely foments hatred of Jews and Israel and who has repeatedly rejected peace would be outrageous. But if, as Tom Gross pointed out in the Weekly Standard, most of the Italian press reported that the pope actually said, “you could be an angel of peace,” that puts the exchange in a very different light. That led Gross to claim those mainstream media outlets that spread the original story did so because they are prejudiced against Israel and for the Palestinians. Gross is on to something there since media bias on the Middle East is real. But before we file this story away as merely another example of this problem, let’s put it in context. If the Times and other outlets that picked up the quote haven’t yet corrected their stories, it’s also because the event during which the pope spoke led them to think that’s what he meant. In this case, the fault may belong as much to the Vatican as to those reporters who spread the misquote.

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It turns out Pope Francis may not have called Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas “an angel of peace.” That was the quote reported by the Associated Press, Agence France Presse and the New York Times on Saturday night and led to my response here criticizing the pontiff for uttering such an egregious comment the following morning. Speaking the way about a man who was a Holocaust denier, a funder and organizer of terrorism, presides over a government and media that routinely foments hatred of Jews and Israel and who has repeatedly rejected peace would be outrageous. But if, as Tom Gross pointed out in the Weekly Standard, most of the Italian press reported that the pope actually said, “you could be an angel of peace,” that puts the exchange in a very different light. That led Gross to claim those mainstream media outlets that spread the original story did so because they are prejudiced against Israel and for the Palestinians. Gross is on to something there since media bias on the Middle East is real. But before we file this story away as merely another example of this problem, let’s put it in context. If the Times and other outlets that picked up the quote haven’t yet corrected their stories, it’s also because the event during which the pope spoke led them to think that’s what he meant. In this case, the fault may belong as much to the Vatican as to those reporters who spread the misquote.

As Gross noted, there is now good reason to think the pope did not call Abbas an “angel of peace.” The Italian press quoted the pope as saying, “Lei possa essere un angelo della pace” — which is translated as “you could be an angel of peace.” The  pope giving Abbas a gift of a medallion that shows an angel of peace “destroying the bad spirit of war” (apparently a standard event for all visitors) and led to the pontiff saying that Abbas could do the same thing. That not only doesn’t sound bad, it could be spun as the pope challenging Abbas to do something that he has not done before. Even more, some have pointed that in addition to the medal, the pope also gave Abbas a copy of his 2013 encyclical Evangelii Gaudium, a document that included language that spoke of Judaism with respect. That could lead some to think the pope was actually sending the PA leader a critical message rather than a pat on the back. If true, that should generate applause from friends of Israel rather than criticism.

But there’s a good reason why the mainstream press has been slow to amend their original stories: the Vatican hasn’t sought a correction. As the Times of Israel pointed out today, neither the Vatican website nor its official news agency specified what the pope said to Abbas on Saturday. Nor did they note the widespread discrepancies in the coverage of that event with many publications making the claim that the pope praised Abbas and others using the more equivocal quote. Nor is that likely to happen.

As much as many of us are rightly predisposed to think that the AP or the New York Times willfully distorted the pope’s words, the Vatican doesn’t appear to be displeased about the misquote. Moreover, it’s hard to be too tough on reporters who got the quote wrong in that manner because praise of Abbas and the Palestinian cause seemed to be exactly the purpose of the visit and other events surrounding the canonization of two Arab nuns who lived in the country when it was under Ottoman rule during the 19th century.

The Vatican’s decision to join much of the rest of Europe and recognize Palestinian independence without first insisting that Abbas (and/or his Hamas rivals that rule Gaza) make peace with Israel was a signal not just of approval for the PA leader but of contempt for efforts to hold him accountable for his behavior. It is a good thing if Pope Francis did not actually call Abbas “an angel of peace.” But by approving the PA’s end run around the peace process at the United Nations, the pope has already done something that is morally equivalent to such an outrageous statement.

Were the pope really interested in challenging Abbas to become an angel of peace, he would not be authorizing the Vatican to conclude a treaty recognizing Palestine while its leaders refuse to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. The church had an opportunity to stand for peace by refusing to join the rush to recognize a government that has no control over the territory it claims and much of which is under the thumb of an Islamist terror group with which the PA has tried to forge an alliance. If the Vatican hasn’t asked for a correction about the misquote, it’s because it seems to be perfectly happy to let the world think the pope is an ardent backer of the PA.

So as much as we are right to criticize the Times, the AP and Agence France Pressse for their mistake, the real fault lies with a Vatican that staged a happy photo op with a leader with Abbas’s checkered past and present opposition to peace talks. No one who knows much about Abbas thinks he could ever be an angel of peace. But Pope Francis, a good man whose good intentions deserve our respect, could be one. But in order to do it, he would have to step back from a policy that aligns the Vatican with those seeking to unfairly pressure Israel and gives the PA a pass for rejecting peace.

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Sorry, Your Holiness, But Abbas is No Angel

Those who forget that the Vatican is a city-state and not just the home office of the Catholic Church got a reminder this past week of just how its sovereignty works. Its decision to formally recognize “Palestine” as an independent nation was not a theological position but one in keeping with the policies of the rest of Europe which has chosen to promote the Palestinian Authority’s ambitions despite its repeated refusal to make peace and its lack of control of much of the territory it claims. The announcement of the planned treaty was timed to coincide with the canonization of two 19th century Arab nuns who lived in Ottoman-ruled Palestine. Yet despite that religious gloss on an otherwise realpolitik move the nuns were upstaged when Pope Francis embraced PA leader Mahmoud Abbas on his visit to Rome and pronounced him “an angel of peace.” Such hyperbole may be par for the course in exchanges between heads of state but for the pope to say something that is so patently false damages his credibility in a way that does the church more harm than might have occurred than had it decided not to join in the rush to recognize the Palestinians. Abbas may be many things but he is no angel as well as not being a champion of peace.

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Those who forget that the Vatican is a city-state and not just the home office of the Catholic Church got a reminder this past week of just how its sovereignty works. Its decision to formally recognize “Palestine” as an independent nation was not a theological position but one in keeping with the policies of the rest of Europe which has chosen to promote the Palestinian Authority’s ambitions despite its repeated refusal to make peace and its lack of control of much of the territory it claims. The announcement of the planned treaty was timed to coincide with the canonization of two 19th century Arab nuns who lived in Ottoman-ruled Palestine. Yet despite that religious gloss on an otherwise realpolitik move the nuns were upstaged when Pope Francis embraced PA leader Mahmoud Abbas on his visit to Rome and pronounced him “an angel of peace.” Such hyperbole may be par for the course in exchanges between heads of state but for the pope to say something that is so patently false damages his credibility in a way that does the church more harm than might have occurred than had it decided not to join in the rush to recognize the Palestinians. Abbas may be many things but he is no angel as well as not being a champion of peace.

As I noted last week, the decisions being taken by the Vatican and other European states won’t advance peace. To the contrary, such moves only encourage Abbas to continue to refuse to negotiate with Israel. The only path forward for a two state solution to the conflict is for the Palestinians to be given statehood only after they have made peace with Israel and not before. Abbas and his predecessor Yasir Arafat have repeatedly refused Israeli offers of peace and statehood. To this day, he refuses to sign any deal that recognizes the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.

That alone should be enough to deny Abbas the title of “angel of peace.” But that isn’t the only reason. Abbas was a longtime deputy to arch-terrorist Arafat and played a role in organizing and financing many acts of brutal terrorism. But unlike other world leaders who might have employed violence in his youth and then became a statesman, Abbas has never really changed. He is the same man who wrote a doctoral thesis that centered on Holocaust denial at Moscow’s Patrice Lumumba University that was published in 1984. He continues to embrace and honor terrorists, such as the murderers with the blood of innocent civilians on their hands that were released by Israel in order to ransom Gilad Shalit from his Hamas captors. Just as important, though he occasionally makes statements about wanting peace when speaking to Western audiences or the international media, his official PA media incites hatred against Jews and Israel on a regular basis.

Let’s concede that part of the Vatican’s motivation for all the love being shown the Palestinians is a desire to position the church to protect Middle East Christians at a time when they are under siege from radical Islam in the region. That ISIS is slaughtering Christians with impunity is well known. Less talked about is the every day pressure that Christian communities are under throughout the region. The result is that ancient Christian communities are disappearing as its members flee for safety in the West rather than face increasing marginalization and discrimination if not violence.

That Christian institutions like the Church would choose to ingratiate themselves with the Muslim world by attacking Israel in this manner is not altogether surprising. Arab Christians have long sought to gain acceptance from Muslims by being in the forefront of the struggle against Zionism. It hasn’t worked as Arab Christians continue to be attacked no matter how ardently they demonstrate their antipathy for Israel and Jews. Religious minorities in the Muslim have a natural ally in Israel but Arab Christians and some of their Western supporters continue to cling to the myth that they can win acceptance from Muslims by joining in attacks on the Jews. That Western Christians also adopt such attitudes is equally foolish. But it can also be explained by anti-Semitic attitudes that persist in Europe despite the heroic efforts of Pope Francis’ predecessors, Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II to eradicate the vestiges of the Church’s past errors.

The pope might be forgiven for this flight of fancy if he were to give an equally egregious title to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu during a meeting with him. But given the animosity that Europeans direct toward the democratically elected leader of the Jewish state such a similar papal embrace is highly unlikely.

Pope Francis’s statement about Abbas can be dismissed as mere window dressing to the Vatican’s diplomatic initiative. But the damage the pope does when he says things that are so blatantly false goes beyond the assault on the truth that so often occurs when world leaders are polite to each other. The power of the papacy remains great. During the last decade of the Cold War, Pope John Paul II proved that Stalin was wrong when he mocked a previous pope by asking how many divisions he controlled. But that power must rest in truth if it is to be more than just talk.

The pope is a good man whose intentions should not be questioned. But just as the Vatican should refrain from acts that harm peace such as its recognition of Palestine, so, too, should the pope not utter falsehoods. That Pope Francis must meet with Abbas is to be expected but when he says something so obviously untrue about him, it hurts the papacy and undermines good relations between the church and the Jewish people more than it helps the corrupt, tyrannical and undemocratic leader of a Palestinian kleptocracy.

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Vatican Recognition of Palestine Won’t Bring Peace Closer

Israel’s critics will celebrate the news today that the Vatican will recognize Palestinian statehood as a rebuke of the Jewish state’s government and policies. The move is line with the international community’s push for Palestinian statehood. It also is part of the Vatican’s efforts to appease the Arab and Muslim worlds as part of a campaign to improve the plight of embattled and dwindling Christian communities in the Middle East. As such, its impact will be mostly symbolic though it will certainly be considered yet another blow to Israel’s uphill efforts to maintain good relations with European countries that are increasingly hostile to Jerusalem. But the one thing we can be sure it won’t do is to improve the chances for peace. By granting the Palestinians official recognition without first requiring them to make peace with Israel, Pope Francis and the Church have only made it less likely that this will ever happen.

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Israel’s critics will celebrate the news today that the Vatican will recognize Palestinian statehood as a rebuke of the Jewish state’s government and policies. The move is line with the international community’s push for Palestinian statehood. It also is part of the Vatican’s efforts to appease the Arab and Muslim worlds as part of a campaign to improve the plight of embattled and dwindling Christian communities in the Middle East. As such, its impact will be mostly symbolic though it will certainly be considered yet another blow to Israel’s uphill efforts to maintain good relations with European countries that are increasingly hostile to Jerusalem. But the one thing we can be sure it won’t do is to improve the chances for peace. By granting the Palestinians official recognition without first requiring them to make peace with Israel, Pope Francis and the Church have only made it less likely that this will ever happen.

It should not be forgotten that the Catholic Church has undergone a remarkable transformation in the last generation with regard to its attitude toward Jews, Judaism and the state of Israel. The historic efforts of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II created a revolution in Jewish-Catholic relations that consigned the disrespect and tolerance for anti-Semitism to the past. The Second Vatican Conference in 1961 broke with the past in terms of rejecting the myth of Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus and set the Church on the path of reconciliation with Judaism. Pope John Paul II continued that effort and under his tutelage Catholic educational efforts discarded the contempt for Judaism that had formerly characterized the Church’s attitude. He added to that legacy when the Vatican formerly recognized Israel in 1993, putting an end to the Church’s official opposition to Zionism that was rooted in a belief that the Jews were cursed to wander and had forfeited the right to their historic homeland.

Since then relations between the Jewish state and the church have not always been rosy. Disputes that stemmed from the anti-Israel attitudes of Palestinian Christians have continued to pop up. As part of an effort to ingratiate itself with Arab countries, the Church has also adopted policies that were hostile to Israel. It’s effort to wrongly blame the Israelis for the decline in the Palestinian Christian community — a trend that is the result of the growing influence of Islamists — has been particularly egregious. But despite all of that, it would be a mistake to consider the Church or the Vatican a particularly avid foe of Israel. Catholics around the world and especially those in the United States have become some of the Jewish state’s best friends and most staunch allies.

Moreover, it is likely that Pope Francis considers his gesture toward the Palestinians to be one intended to encourage peace. The pontiff seems to consider it an effort to be even-handed between the two parties to the conflict and is probably entirely sincere in his hopes that this move will jumpstart the moribund peace process.

But, for all of his good will, the pope is mistaken to think that giving the Palestinians such recognition will advance the peace process. To the contrary, by granting them official status in this way only encourages Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to continue to stonewall efforts to make peace.

After all, if Abbas’s real goal been an independent Palestinian state, he could have had one in 2000, 2001 when his former boss Yasir Arafat rejected an Israeli offer of statehood including almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and a share of Jerusalem. Abbas rejected an even better offer in 2008 and then refused to negotiate seriously in 2013 and 2014 even after the Israelis had accepted an American framework whose goal was a two state solution.

The Palestinian campaign to get recognition from the United Nations and other countries is motivated by a desire to avoid peace talks, not to make them more successful. The Palestinians want a state but not one that is prepared to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state alongside it, not matter where its borders are drawn. By telling the Palestinians, the Church recognizes his faux state; it is making it easier for Abbas to refuse to negotiate. To the extent that this recognition grants the Palestinians rights to all of the disputed 1967 territories, the Vatican and other European states that have done the same thing, is prejudging negotiations that should be conducted by the parties, not outsiders.

Just as important, the Church ignores the fact that an independent Palestinian state in all but name already exists in Gaza under the tyrannical rule of Hamas terrorists. Which “Palestine” is the Church recognizing? Hamasistan or Fatah’s corrupt kleptocracy that Abbas presides over? With Hamas growing more popular, the prospect of it gaining power in an independent West Bank makes an Israeli withdrawal a fantasy rather than a viable policy option.

While no one should question the pope’s good intentions, the Vatican move will only serve to make peace less likely and do nothing for Middle East Christians who are under unbearable pressure from Islamists, not Israel. In this case, being even-handed undermines the already dwindling hopes for a two state solution.

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Hillary Clinton’s Campaign and the Coming Culture Wars

According to media reports, on Sunday Hillary Clinton will announce she is running for president. That hardly comes as a surprise, and for Republicans, it’s not anything to fear.  Mrs. Clinton is hardly a formidable candidate. She showed that in 2008, and she’ll show it again this year and next.

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According to media reports, on Sunday Hillary Clinton will announce she is running for president. That hardly comes as a surprise, and for Republicans, it’s not anything to fear.  Mrs. Clinton is hardly a formidable candidate. She showed that in 2008, and she’ll show it again this year and next.

Mrs. Clinton’s husband is a man of extraordinary political talents; she is a woman of completely average political talents. She can come across as grating, programmed, inauthentic, and barely “likable enough,” to quote Barack Obama. She’s conspiracy minded and a fabulist. Her last presidential campaign was badly mismanaged. Her public career has been characterized by secrecy and ethical violations, including her outrageous (and lawless) conduct surrounding the withholding and deletion of her emails as Secretary of State. She is also likely to be the nominee of a party that is utterly intellectually exhausted. And for good measure, she was the key foreign policy figure in what is arguably the worst foreign policy administration in American history.

That said, Mrs. Clinton knows how to raise money, she is unlikely to face a serious primary challenger, her party has won five of the last six popular votes in presidential elections, and (unlike her husband) she is disciplined. And because she is a woman, electing her would make Mrs. Clinton a historic figure in a way that Barack Obama was on race. The political potency of that should not be underestimated.

As the Clinton campaign is about to begin, then, here’s a prediction: She, her team, and her party will obsess on cultural issues and attempt to divide the nation around them to a degree we have never quite seen before. She’ll do this both because she is a liberal woman and because she has very little to say on economic and foreign policy matters. Mrs. Clinton will go into this election believing the “culture wars” to be the best and safest political ground for her. She will portray Republicans as engaged in a “war on women” in such a way that past efforts will look like a walk in the park. The distortions, mob mentality, and smear campaign that characterized the reaction of the left to the Indiana version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (the federal version of which Bill Clinton signed into law) will be amplified by a factor of a hundred. If Hillary Clinton could talk about contraception, abortion, evolution, same sex marriage, and equal pay for equal work every day between now and November 2016, she would.

The 2010s is not the 1970s or 1980s, when focusing on cultural issues and symbols helped the GOP. As National Journal’s Ron Brownstein has written

While Republicans took the offense on most cultural arguments through the late 20th century, now Democrats from Obama on down are mostly pressing these issues, confident that they represent an expanding majority of public opinion.

Veteran pollster Stanley B. Greenberg captures this almost unprecedented Democratic assurance when he declares flatly: “Republicans are on the losing side of all of these trends.”

This certainly doesn’t mean the Republican nominee should become a social liberal. Nor does it mean the Republican standard-bearer can’t blunt these attacks or even reframe some of them in ways that might work to his advantage. (I’ll deal with this in a later post, one that focuses on the encouraging progress that’s been made on the issue of abortion.) But it will require a candidate who can defend moral truths, traditions, and basic rights (like religious liberty) in a way that is perceived by voters as principled and gracious rather than aggressive and judgmental. They need to be seen as promoting the human good and defending human dignity rather than as Old Testament prophets lamenting a lost way of life. Warning Americans that they are slouching toward Gomorrah won’t work and it shouldn’t be tried.

I’ve written elsewhere that if evangelical Christians are looking for a model of cultural engagement, they should look to Pope Francis rather than Franklin Graham. Republicans might consider doing something similar. The degree to which Francis has favorably altered the perception of the institution he represents — not by changing doctrine but by acting and speaking in a way characterized by grace and genuine human sympathy — is remarkable.

Most Republicans, eager to focus on economics and foreign policy, will want to avoid cultural issues. To the degree they can, they probably should. But know this, too: Hillary Clinton and a compliant press won’t allow them to entirely sidestep this conversation. Which means they better start preparing for it now.

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Who Will Listen to Pope’s Call on Middle East Christians?

During his three day visit to Turkey, Pope Francis joined with the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I to offer some words of solidarity with the Middle East’s fast vanishing Christian communities. The sentiments expressed here were valuable, not least because in their joint statement the two Christian leaders called for “an appropriate response on the part of the international community.” Yet one only has to look at the comments by Turkey’s president Erdogan to see just what they are up against.

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During his three day visit to Turkey, Pope Francis joined with the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I to offer some words of solidarity with the Middle East’s fast vanishing Christian communities. The sentiments expressed here were valuable, not least because in their joint statement the two Christian leaders called for “an appropriate response on the part of the international community.” Yet one only has to look at the comments by Turkey’s president Erdogan to see just what they are up against.

The Pope’s comments no doubt went some considerable way toward adding moral clarity to this matter, while President Erdogan—in previous statements—has already been busily muddying the waters. So while on his flight back to Rome the Pope called for Islamic leaders to condemn terrorism and specifically linked the plight of the Middle East’s Christians to the rise of ISIS, Erdogan breathtakingly blamed the rise of ISIS on alleged Islamophobia in the West–a demonstrably absurd claim that was no doubt in part a desperate attempt to divert attention away from Christian suffering and to instead reframe the conversation around Muslim victimhood and the wickedness of the West.

For a sense of just how outlandish the Turkish president’s rhetoric on the subject has now become, in his speech just prior to the pope’s arrival Erdogan stated “Foreigners love oil, gold, diamonds and the cheap labour force of the Islamic world. They like the conflicts, fights and quarrels of the Middle East. Believe me, they don’t like us. They look like friends, but they want us dead, they like seeing our children die.” It is worth noting that Turkey’s own Christian population has diminished considerably. A century ago 20 percent of those living in what is now Turkey were Christian; today that figure stands at a pitiful 0.2 percent. The Greek Orthodox population has been whittled down to fewer than 3,000 while what remains of the Armenian Christian community lives in almost constant fear. Just a few years back Hrant Dink–editor of a leading Armenian newspaper—was murdered by Turkish nationalists.

An unrepentant Erdogan can blame an Islamophobic West for the rise of ISIS all he wants, but his country stands accused of allowing ISIS fighters to flow freely into Iraq and Syria where they have carried out the most unspeakable crimes of murder, rape, and torture against the Christian communities that they find in their path. Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew spoke of how unacceptable they find the prospect of a Middle East free of its native Christianity. And yet, if no one is willing to intervene seriously in the region, then that is precisely what is going to happen.

Knowing this, one has to wonder why Christian leaders have so far failed to create a serious campaign to pressure Western governments to back serious intervention on humanitarian grounds. After all, in the 1990s the West—led by the United States—intervened in Bosnia to stop the massacre of the Muslim population of the Balkans and thus prevent a genocide on Europe’s doorstep that most of Western Europe appeared ready to sit back and let happen. Shouldn’t Christians now be demanding the same kind of meaningful intervention on their behalf?

Christian groups have in recent years campaigned for all kinds of people and causes all around the world. Perhaps it is in some way an expression of the Christian virtue of selflessness that churches have promoted other causes over the welfare of their own coreligionists in the Middle East. Yet it is particularly striking how the denominations at the liberal end of Protestantism have so enthusiastically taken up the campaign against Israel, while almost ignoring the plight of Christians in the same region. From the American Presbyterians and the British Methodists with their boycotts to the annual “Christ at the Checkpoint” conference, it’s the same story. And then there is the Church of England’s flagship St. James’s church in London which, as Melanie Phillips recounted in COMMENTARY earlier this year, previously marked the Christmas festivities with their “Bethlehem Unwrapped” campaign featuring a nine meter high replica of Israel’s security barrier.

This Christmas can we expect to see “ISIS Unwrapped” at St. James’s? Of course not, just more events about the Palestinians. If these denominations focused even half the energy they put into demonizing Israel into instead campaigning in solidarity with Christians in the Middle East then we might see this issue receiving the kind of public attention it deserves. It was of course the former head of the Anglican Church, Rowan Williams, who insinuated that the West was to blame for provoking the persecution of the Middle East’s Christians. And so while it is encouraging that the Pope has decried what ISIS is doing to Christian communities, one wonders how many Christians in the West will actually be more sympathetic to Erdogan’s claim that the real culprit here is Western Islamophobia for having “made ISIS do it” in the first place.

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Francis’s Misleading Middle East Symbolism

On Sunday, Pope Francis made good on his pledge to convene a summit of Israeli and Palestinian leaders for a prayer service in Rome. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was there along with Israel’s President Shimon Peres. Along with Francis, both made speeches calling for peace and listened as clergy from the three major faiths spoke of symbolic acts of reconciliation that were, as a number of commentators noted, supposed to show that at the very least, religion can be a uniting factor rather than the engine that drives separation and hostility. Even though no one is pretending that a few speeches or prayers in Rome will change the facts of a stalemate between the two sides in the peace talks, the gesture will reinforce the pope’s reputation as a man intent on healing the world.

Given the pope’s evident good will, it’s hard to argue with the idea that his summit will do no harm and might cause the two sides to think about working harder for peace. But this piece of conventional wisdom is misleading. Though no one should question the pope’s intentions, the event at the Vatican is more than empty symbolism. This piece of grandstanding on the part of the church not only did nothing to advance the cause of peace that was torpedoed by the Palestinian unity pact that brought the terrorists of Hamas into the PA along with Abbas’s Fatah. By lending the moral authority of a man who is rightly respected around the world for his probity and earnest desire to help others to a stunt that treats the partner of Islamist terrorists as a peacemaker, the event undermines any effort to pressure the PA to make a clear choice between peace with Israel or one with Hamas.

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On Sunday, Pope Francis made good on his pledge to convene a summit of Israeli and Palestinian leaders for a prayer service in Rome. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was there along with Israel’s President Shimon Peres. Along with Francis, both made speeches calling for peace and listened as clergy from the three major faiths spoke of symbolic acts of reconciliation that were, as a number of commentators noted, supposed to show that at the very least, religion can be a uniting factor rather than the engine that drives separation and hostility. Even though no one is pretending that a few speeches or prayers in Rome will change the facts of a stalemate between the two sides in the peace talks, the gesture will reinforce the pope’s reputation as a man intent on healing the world.

Given the pope’s evident good will, it’s hard to argue with the idea that his summit will do no harm and might cause the two sides to think about working harder for peace. But this piece of conventional wisdom is misleading. Though no one should question the pope’s intentions, the event at the Vatican is more than empty symbolism. This piece of grandstanding on the part of the church not only did nothing to advance the cause of peace that was torpedoed by the Palestinian unity pact that brought the terrorists of Hamas into the PA along with Abbas’s Fatah. By lending the moral authority of a man who is rightly respected around the world for his probity and earnest desire to help others to a stunt that treats the partner of Islamist terrorists as a peacemaker, the event undermines any effort to pressure the PA to make a clear choice between peace with Israel or one with Hamas.

In fairness to the pope, his foolish even-handed approach differs little from that of the Obama administration which has decided to continue to send aid to the PA despite the involvement of the Hamas terrorists in its administration following the signing of the unity pact. Together with the European Union, the United States has effectively given its stamp of approval to a PA government that is making peace impossible. Palestinian unity has not brought Hamas into a government bent on creating an agreement based on coexistence and an end to violence. Rather, it signifies the joint position of the two main Palestinian factions that proclaim their refusal to ever recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn.

Seen in that context, the ceremonial symbolism in Rome is not just a distraction from the reality of a PA that refused Israeli offers of independence and peace three times between 2000 and 2008 and also refused to negotiate seriously in the last year of American-sponsored talks that amounts to a fourth such refusal. So long as the world refuses to place the same kind of brutal pressure on the Palestinians to give up their war on Zionism and accept a two-state solution that it puts on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, peace will remain impossible for the foreseeable future.

It must also be pointed out that in the inclusion of Peres in the conclave rather than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the papal event engaged in the sort of cheap shot that is unworthy of a leader of the pope’s stature. While Abbas and Peres are technically both the heads of state of their respective government, the former is the leader of the PA while Peres’s role is purely ceremonial. Peres’s willingness to pretend that there is nothing wrong with a PA that partners with Hamas is in consistent with his past record of taking risks for peace. His Oslo led to the empowerment of a terrorist like Yasir Arafat but his international standing as a wise man has survived decisions that cost lives and did nothing to advance the goal he championed. But whatever we might think of Peres’s qualifications as a diplomat, going around Netanyahu’s back undermines Israeli democracy and allows those who seek to whitewash Abbas and the Fatah-Hamas government to say that they are merely agreeing with him. Peres’s presence at the summit was a rebuke to Israel’s government, which has rightly complained about the way the international community has given Abbas a free pass to make common cause with terrorists while still posing as a peacemaker. It bears repeating that it is only Netanyahu and his ministers who have the right to negotiate on behalf of the Israeli electorate that put them in office.

Nothing that happened in Rome today will help bring peace because the premise of the event is a foolish belief that what is needed is more dialogue. The two sides already know where they stand. Peace requires a Palestinian leader to have the guts to reject Hamas and those Fatah elements that are still supportive of terror and unwilling to bring the conflict to an end. Any prayer service or act of advocacy on behalf of Middle East peace that ignores this key question is part of the problem, not the solution. While we respect Pope Francis, like his misguided recent trip to the Middle East that bogged him down in dangerous acts of moral equivalency between terrorists and the victims of terror at Israel’s security barrier, this event was a mistake.

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Even Popes Can’t Transcend Conflicts

Pope Francis may have intended his visit to the Middle East to promote the causes of ecumenism and peace. But he has learned that it is not possible to step into the political maelstrom of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians without getting sucked into it. The picture of him praying at the security barrier in Bethlehem at a point where it was defaced by Palestinian graffiti that spoke of it as an “apartheid wall” will—as the Guardian gleefully characterized it—probably be the best remembered moment of the trip and the photo of him praying in front of it may become an iconic image of grievances against Israel. This unscheduled stop is believed to have been the work of his Palestinian hosts rather than a deliberate Vatican insult directed at Israel. But though he attempted to make up for it the next day with a stop at a memorial to the Israeli victims of Arab terror—a reminder that the barrier was built to prevent more such deaths at the hands of Palestinian suicide bombers—the damage was already done especially since the pontiff’s silent prayers at the first unscheduled stop were not balanced by any statement that made it clear that he understood why the fence had to be built.

Though he is trying to be even-handed and must be credited with the best of intentions, given the highly symbolic nature of every one of his gestures, it is difficult to regard the controversies into which he has allowed himself to be drawn without thinking that he might have done everyone a favor and just stayed home.

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Pope Francis may have intended his visit to the Middle East to promote the causes of ecumenism and peace. But he has learned that it is not possible to step into the political maelstrom of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians without getting sucked into it. The picture of him praying at the security barrier in Bethlehem at a point where it was defaced by Palestinian graffiti that spoke of it as an “apartheid wall” will—as the Guardian gleefully characterized it—probably be the best remembered moment of the trip and the photo of him praying in front of it may become an iconic image of grievances against Israel. This unscheduled stop is believed to have been the work of his Palestinian hosts rather than a deliberate Vatican insult directed at Israel. But though he attempted to make up for it the next day with a stop at a memorial to the Israeli victims of Arab terror—a reminder that the barrier was built to prevent more such deaths at the hands of Palestinian suicide bombers—the damage was already done especially since the pontiff’s silent prayers at the first unscheduled stop were not balanced by any statement that made it clear that he understood why the fence had to be built.

Though he is trying to be even-handed and must be credited with the best of intentions, given the highly symbolic nature of every one of his gestures, it is difficult to regard the controversies into which he has allowed himself to be drawn without thinking that he might have done everyone a favor and just stayed home.

Even before he arrived in the region, some on both sides of the divide criticized the pope for his itinerary. Jews voiced concern about the Vatican’s efforts to emphasize their formal recognition of a “State of Palestine” without first requiring it to make peace with Israel. Palestinians were angry about the pope’s stop on Mount Herzl, Israel’s Arlington, where Francis laid a wreath on the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, a sign that they still refuse to accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state he envisaged.

But by stepping into the controversy over the security barrier, the pope left the realms of both religion and state protocol to lend his enormous international credibility and popularity to the Palestinian narrative about the fence. That he was led to a particular spot on it that was filled with English as well as Arabic graffiti was the perfect photo op for those who attempt to argue that its placement is a symbol of Israeli oppression of the Palestinians. Israel’s foes have attempted to claim that the fence is a new version of a Nazi ghetto wall in which Palestinian victims are hemmed in and deprived of their rights. The truth is that it was built reluctantly by an Israeli government that did not wish to divide the land in this manner but had to do something to make it harder for Palestinian suicide bombers and other terrorists to cross into Israel to slaughter innocents. Rather than a tangible manifestation of Israeli colonialism, it is a monument to the bloodthirsty decision of Palestinian leaders to wage a terrorist war against the Jewish state when they could have instead had independence and peace.

While some are wrongly assuming that every action of the pope is evidence that old enmities between Jews and Catholics are being resurrected, the pope’s good intentions are not really in doubt. Francis appears to be a strong supporter of the work of his predecessors John XXIII and John Paul II in putting an end to Catholic support for anti-Semitism and inaugurating a new era of respect between the two faiths and in recognizing the legitimacy of Israel.

But even if we concede his desire to do good, the Vatican needed to understand that injecting the pope into the details of the Middle East conflict is far more likely to heighten tensions than to relax them. Nor is the meeting in Rome to which the pope has invited Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres a particularly helpful gesture. By inviting Peres, who holds a largely symbolic office rather than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is Abbas’s actual counterpart in terms of power, the pontiff can be accused of seeking to bypass the Israeli government and undermining Israel’s actual leader, who is not liked in Europe because of his tough-minded willingness to stand up for his country.

The point here is that neither the pope nor any other foreign leader can solve the puzzle of Middle East peace. If the conflict is to be resolved it must be by done by the Israelis and the Palestinians. Unfortunately, the Palestinians are still stuck in their “Nakba” narrative in which they have come to link their identity as a people with their struggle to deny Jewish rights over any part of the land and in which they have come to glorify violence against Israel and its people. The Vatican is also in no position to play Middle East politics when it seems quick to engage in disputes with Israel while at the same time demonstrating its reluctance to criticize the Arab and Muslim world for its mistreatment of Christian minorities.

The pope should be welcomed wherever he goes and even those who are rightly upset about some aspects of his trip should avoid any hint of enmity toward this good man. But this whirlwind visit shows that even the most well-intentioned visitors can blunder if they believe they can transcend the conflict even while plunging into it.

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Welcoming the Pope with Lies About Israel’s Christians

I’m a longtime fan of the Wall Street Journal. But I confess to mystification over why a paper with a staunchly pro-Israel editorial line consistently allows its news pages to be used for anti-Israel smear campaigns–and I do mean smear campaigns, not just “critical reporting.” A classic example was its assertion in an April 7 news report that Israel had agreed “to release political prisoners” as part of the U.S.-brokered deal that restarted Israeli-Palestinian talks last summer. The Journal was sufficiently embarrassed by this description of convicted mass murderers that it issued a correction in print, yet the online version still unrepentantly dubs these vicious terrorists “political prisoners.”

A more subtle example was last week’s report titled “On Middle East Visit, Pope Will Find a Diminished Christian Population.” While Israel is the glaring exception to this Mideast trend, reporter Nicholas Casey elegantly implies the opposite in a single sentence that’s dishonest on at least three different levels: “Syria has seen an exodus of nearly half a million Christians, and in Jerusalem, a population of 27,000 Christians in 1948 has dwindled to 5,000.”

First, while Casey never says explicitly that Jerusalem’s shrinking Christian population reflects the situation in Israel as a whole, it’s the obvious conclusion for the average reader–especially given the juxtaposition with Syria, which implies that both countries are treating their Christians similarly and thereby causing them to flee. This impression is reinforced by the only other statistic he gives about Israel: that Christians have declined as a percentage of the total population.

The truth, however, is that Israel’s Christian population has grown dramatically–from a mere 34,000 in 1949 to 158,000 in 2012, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. That’s an increase of almost fivefold. And while Christians have fallen as a share of the total population, that’s mainly because they have significantly lower birthrates than either Israeli Jews or Israeli Muslims.

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I’m a longtime fan of the Wall Street Journal. But I confess to mystification over why a paper with a staunchly pro-Israel editorial line consistently allows its news pages to be used for anti-Israel smear campaigns–and I do mean smear campaigns, not just “critical reporting.” A classic example was its assertion in an April 7 news report that Israel had agreed “to release political prisoners” as part of the U.S.-brokered deal that restarted Israeli-Palestinian talks last summer. The Journal was sufficiently embarrassed by this description of convicted mass murderers that it issued a correction in print, yet the online version still unrepentantly dubs these vicious terrorists “political prisoners.”

A more subtle example was last week’s report titled “On Middle East Visit, Pope Will Find a Diminished Christian Population.” While Israel is the glaring exception to this Mideast trend, reporter Nicholas Casey elegantly implies the opposite in a single sentence that’s dishonest on at least three different levels: “Syria has seen an exodus of nearly half a million Christians, and in Jerusalem, a population of 27,000 Christians in 1948 has dwindled to 5,000.”

First, while Casey never says explicitly that Jerusalem’s shrinking Christian population reflects the situation in Israel as a whole, it’s the obvious conclusion for the average reader–especially given the juxtaposition with Syria, which implies that both countries are treating their Christians similarly and thereby causing them to flee. This impression is reinforced by the only other statistic he gives about Israel: that Christians have declined as a percentage of the total population.

The truth, however, is that Israel’s Christian population has grown dramatically–from a mere 34,000 in 1949 to 158,000 in 2012, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. That’s an increase of almost fivefold. And while Christians have fallen as a share of the total population, that’s mainly because they have significantly lower birthrates than either Israeli Jews or Israeli Muslims.

Second, even his statistics on Jerusalem are dubious. Since he doesn’t source them, it’s not clear how Casey arrived at his figure of only 5,000 Christians nowadays. But the most recent figure published by Israel’s internationally respected statistics bureau, in 2013, put the city’s Christian population at 14,700 as of the end of 2011. It is, to say the least, highly unlikely that after remaining stable at about that level for 44 years (more on that in a moment)–decades punctuated by repeated wars, vicious terrorism and deep recessions–the Christian population would suddenly plunge by two thirds in a mere two years at a time of strong economic growth and very little terror.

Third, while Jerusalem’s Christian population has undeniably plummeted since 1948 even according to Israel’s statistics, Casey neglects to mention one very salient point: The entirety of that decline took place during the 19 years when East Jerusalem–where most of the city’s Christians live–was controlled by Jordan rather than Israel. By 1967, when Israel reunited the city, Jerusalem’s Christian population had fallen by more than half, to just 12,646, from Casey’s 1948 figure (which does roughly match other available sources). Since then, it has actually edged upward, to 14,700.

Throw in the de rigueur innuendos that the Palestinian Authority’s declining Christian population is mainly Israel’s fault, and Casey’s verbal Photoshop job is complete: The one country in the Middle East whose Christian population is growing and thriving–a fact increasingly acknowledged by Israeli Christians themselves–has been successfully repackaged to the average reader as a vicious persecutor that is driving its Christians out.

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The Palestinians, the Pope and Peace

Pope Francis’s upcoming trip to the Middle East is fraught with political and religious symbolism and events on his itinerary are raising the temperatures on both sides of the Middle East divide. In Israel, some are upset about the way the Vatican is treating his stops in the West Bank as if it is a state visit to a sovereign “State of Palestine” that, in fact, does not exist. Others are upset about the Israeli government’s decision to allow Francis to celebrate a mass on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, a site that Jews believe is the Tomb of King David and Christians think is the place where the Last Supper took place.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians are up in arms over the fact that the Pope will visit Mount Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery outside the capital, and lay a wreath on the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. And therein hangs the tale not only of a pope caught in the middle of a bitter clash in which any seemingly innocuous gesture of good will can become a source of tension but the issue that lies at the very core of a century-long conflict.

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Pope Francis’s upcoming trip to the Middle East is fraught with political and religious symbolism and events on his itinerary are raising the temperatures on both sides of the Middle East divide. In Israel, some are upset about the way the Vatican is treating his stops in the West Bank as if it is a state visit to a sovereign “State of Palestine” that, in fact, does not exist. Others are upset about the Israeli government’s decision to allow Francis to celebrate a mass on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, a site that Jews believe is the Tomb of King David and Christians think is the place where the Last Supper took place.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians are up in arms over the fact that the Pope will visit Mount Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery outside the capital, and lay a wreath on the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. And therein hangs the tale not only of a pope caught in the middle of a bitter clash in which any seemingly innocuous gesture of good will can become a source of tension but the issue that lies at the very core of a century-long conflict.

The context of the papal visit is the desire of Francis, a man already renowned for his caring persona and a desire to create outreach with all peoples, to plant a flag of ecumenism in the midst of a steadily worsening environment for Christians in the Middle East. The rise of Islamism has made the situation of all non-Muslim minorities in the region difficult and none are in a more precarious situation than that of Palestinian Christians, who have left the administered territories in large numbers since the Oslo Accords that handed over effective control of these areas to the Palestinian Authority. But, instead, a bogus campaign of incitement has sought to convince the world that Israel, the one nation in the region where freedom of religion prevails, is the problem for the Christians.

Nevertheless, tensions between Palestinian Arabs and Jews have at times bubbled over into religious tension. Far right extremist Jews appear to have been guilty of vandalism at some churches, a deplorable development that has generated international outrage that is notably missing when Jewish institutions are routinely given the same treatment by Arabs.

The dispute at Mount Zion is typical of the kind of disputes that develop at the holy places. The shrine there has been under Jewish control for decades. Indeed, prior to the unification of Jerusalem and the liberation of the Western Wall, it was considered by many to be the most sacred spot inside pre-1967 Israel. While the Israeli protests about the mass seem intolerant, they are generated by fears that the site will be handed over to the church, which would compromise Jewish sovereignty over the capital as well as possibly infringe on Jewish worship there. The Israeli government is clearly opposed to such a transfer and if they allow Christians more access to the site for their worship, it is to be hoped that both sides will live and let live.

Israelis would have preferred that the Vatican not jump the gun and recognize “Palestine” without the Arabs first being required to make peace. Such recognition lessens the pressure on the Palestinians to negotiate in good faith, but there is little rancor over the pope’s desire to visit what is, for all intents and purposes, a separate country in the West Bank. But the Herzl dispute is more serious than just another tit-for-tat argument.

In venting their anger about a wreath for Herzl, the Palestinians are once again demonstrating that their real problem with Israel isn’t West Bank settlements or where the border should be after a peace treaty. It is, instead, an argument about the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders wind up being drawn. Herzl, who died in 1904, isn’t connected in any way to the grievances Palestinians and their foreign cheerleaders vent their spleen about. But he is, in no small measure, responsible for the birth of the movement responsible for the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty over the historic homeland of his people. If Palestinians have a problem with Herzl, it’s because they still can’t bring themselves to change a political culture that regards rejection of Zionism as integral to their identity as a people.

Jews rightly see the pope’s presence at Mount Herzl as a much needed act of historical justice. During his campaign to gain international recognition for the right of the Jewish people to return to their homeland and create their own state, Herzl visited Francis’s predecessor Pope Pius X 110 years ago. That pope contemptuously rejected Herzl’s plea, a response that was very much in keeping with Catholic doctrine at the time that regarded perpetual exile as an appropriate punishment for the Jewish people for their refusal to accept Christianity. Fortunately, Popes John XXIII and John Paul II have already changed the church’s attitude toward Judaism and Zionism. While most Jews may disagree with some of the Vatican’s policies with regard to the Palestinians, there is no question that the two faiths are now closer than they have ever been. By paying his respects to Herzl, Francis is solidifying that bond.

Until the Palestinians give up their war on Zionism and find a way to recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, the papal visit may not change much about interfaith relations but, rather, that one stop on his itinerary demonstrates just how unlikely peace remains.

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The Remarkable Pope Francis

In his 12,000 word interview with Antonio Spadaro, editor in chief of La Civilta Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal, Pope Francis revealed the heart of an extraordinary man.

The former archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio, did not change Catholic Church doctrine. But six months into his papacy, through his words and his actions, he has changed its emphasis and tone.

Richard B. Hays, a widely respected scholar on New Testament ethics, has written that any ethic that intends to be biblical must seek “to get the accents in the right place.” And that is, I think, what Francis is attempting to do. It isn’t that he believes the church’s position on homosexuality and abortion are wrong. “The teaching of the church … is clear and I am a son of the church,” he said. But in his words, “it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”

“We have to find a new balance,” Francis went on to say, “otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”

Francis is on to something quite important. A friend of mine once told me he doesn’t want to equivocate about truth. But he does believe it’s far too easy for us to think that we “know” the mind of God, even though we all see through a glass darkly. He also worries, as do I, that in the name of “truth” we sometimes create an exclusionist religious culture where moral rules are elevated above grace.

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In his 12,000 word interview with Antonio Spadaro, editor in chief of La Civilta Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal, Pope Francis revealed the heart of an extraordinary man.

The former archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio, did not change Catholic Church doctrine. But six months into his papacy, through his words and his actions, he has changed its emphasis and tone.

Richard B. Hays, a widely respected scholar on New Testament ethics, has written that any ethic that intends to be biblical must seek “to get the accents in the right place.” And that is, I think, what Francis is attempting to do. It isn’t that he believes the church’s position on homosexuality and abortion are wrong. “The teaching of the church … is clear and I am a son of the church,” he said. But in his words, “it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”

“We have to find a new balance,” Francis went on to say, “otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”

Francis is on to something quite important. A friend of mine once told me he doesn’t want to equivocate about truth. But he does believe it’s far too easy for us to think that we “know” the mind of God, even though we all see through a glass darkly. He also worries, as do I, that in the name of “truth” we sometimes create an exclusionist religious culture where moral rules are elevated above grace.

In describing his vision of the church, Francis speaks about it as “a field hospital after battle.”

“It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.”

“This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people,” according to Pope Francis. “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules,” he added. And he spoke about the church as “the people of God on the journey through history, with joys and sorrows.”

The thing the church needs most today, Jorge Bergoglio said, “is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity.” The minsters of the Gospel must be people “who walk through the dark night with [others], who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost.” And then he added this: “The proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.”

As a Christian (but non-Catholic), this strikes me as quite right. The church was created in large part to be a refuge, a source of support and fellowship; a place characterized by love and gentleness, encouragement and accountability. And a place that helps restore integrity and wholeness to our lives. Those who share my faith believe there is liberation to be had and peace to be found in knowing that we are God’s beloved and by living in alignment with His purposes for our lives. But all of us come to Him with brokenness in our lives, and that ought to command from us some degree of humility and empathy–and some aversion to judgmentalism and censoriousness. In a world in which people hold profoundly different views and hold them with some passion–and where moral truths need to be affirmed–it isn’t easy for people of faith to be known more for mercy than condemnation, for words that encourage and uplift rather than wound. But that is what we’re called to be. 

For those who believe that framing things this way is a clever but mistaken way of pitting moral rectitude against love–who believe it is equivocating when people of faith should be standing strong and tall in a world of rising licentiousness and immorality–there’s no way to prove who is definitively right or wrong. The devil can quote Scripture for his purposes, Shakespeare wrote. Our life experiences, dispositions, and temperaments draw us to different interpretations and understandings of the true nature of things. 

My own perspective is that life is filled with joy and wonder to be sure; but there is also the pain and hardship of living in a fallen world. That people whose lives seem so well put together on the surface are struggling with fears and failures below it. And that often we find ourselves living somewhere else than we thought we’d be. Many of us, then, find ourselves in need of grace and redemption. Which is why the words of this remarkable pope have such resonance with us.

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The Legacy of Faith

One didn’t have to be a Catholic to be impressed by the demeanor and grace shown by Pope Francis after his election yesterday at the Vatican. The media is full of pundits and so-called experts giving the pope advice as to how to deal with his church’s problems or even on how best to adjust its doctrines to suit their beliefs. That seems to me to be not only absurd but also a waste of time. As the first South American and the first Jesuit pope, Francis is a symbol of change. But if there is anything that observers should take away from the drama that has unfolded in Rome this last week it is that the Catholic Church remains firmly in the hands of those who love its teachings and are determined to both preserve them and to help ensure that they continue to serve the needs of the faithful and the world in general.

That is good news indeed, since in the last century the church has reasserted itself as a force for good. Especially under the leadership of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, the church has become a beacon of conviction against anti-Semitism. As a disciple of John Paul II and someone who had warm relations with Argentine Jewry, Pope Francis appears to be very much part of that movement. While that might appear to be a parochial concern for Jews, it is actually very significant.

The point about the transformation of the church over the last century from an institution that fomented prejudice against Jews to one that is in the forefront of those fighting against anti-Semitism cannot be emphasized enough. The church has not only cleaned its own house with respect to a legacy of hate; it has become a stalwart partner in the struggle to eradicate it everywhere.

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One didn’t have to be a Catholic to be impressed by the demeanor and grace shown by Pope Francis after his election yesterday at the Vatican. The media is full of pundits and so-called experts giving the pope advice as to how to deal with his church’s problems or even on how best to adjust its doctrines to suit their beliefs. That seems to me to be not only absurd but also a waste of time. As the first South American and the first Jesuit pope, Francis is a symbol of change. But if there is anything that observers should take away from the drama that has unfolded in Rome this last week it is that the Catholic Church remains firmly in the hands of those who love its teachings and are determined to both preserve them and to help ensure that they continue to serve the needs of the faithful and the world in general.

That is good news indeed, since in the last century the church has reasserted itself as a force for good. Especially under the leadership of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, the church has become a beacon of conviction against anti-Semitism. As a disciple of John Paul II and someone who had warm relations with Argentine Jewry, Pope Francis appears to be very much part of that movement. While that might appear to be a parochial concern for Jews, it is actually very significant.

The point about the transformation of the church over the last century from an institution that fomented prejudice against Jews to one that is in the forefront of those fighting against anti-Semitism cannot be emphasized enough. The church has not only cleaned its own house with respect to a legacy of hate; it has become a stalwart partner in the struggle to eradicate it everywhere.

The church’s turn against anti-Semitism and the Vatican’s recognition of the legitimacy of the State of Israel cannot be isolated from the role it played in standing for freedom against Communist tyranny during the Cold War. As that struggle recedes into memory, the church remains a bulwark for the cause of religious freedom throughout the globe. That’s why it is so disappointing that so many who are quite vocal about advocacy for religious freedom elsewhere were silent when it came to standing with the church as it sought to defend its own liberty of conscience against the federal government’s health care mandates.

Ironically, for much of the last century as the church did evolve to its current position on these issues, it has suffered from the abuse heaped upon it and other organized religions from intellectuals and the world of popular culture. Some writers have told us that ours is an age in which atheism has gone mainstream and a time when traditional faiths must abandon their beliefs in order to become more “relevant” to the young. But the outpouring of good will for the new pope shows that those who have predicted the decline of religion are almost certainly wrong.

Though it is beset with many problems as well as scandals that still hang over some of its leaders, the church’s legacy of faith is one that continues to nurture and inspire its believers as well as sympathetic observers from other faiths. All persons of faith should join with Catholics to pray for Francis’s success and to hope that the church will remain steadfast in its mission as a force for good.

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