We believe that this effort will be appreciated because, in our opinion, this trip is of exceptional importance.
Exceptional because, firstly, the pope proposed himself as a friend and brother of the people of the Middle East, with simplicity and precision, without hiding in the slightest degree his identity as pastor of the Catholic Church, teaching the entire world what coexistence between people of different ethnicities and religions means.
His relating to the Church and the Christians of the Middle East who came to listen to him was also exceptional: among them some of the Churches worst hit by persecution (such as the Iraqi and Palestinian churches), the ever decreasing minorities, who are suffering 60 years of war and an increasingly disastrous economic situation. The pope asked them to stay in the Holy Land, to look upon their presence in the Middle East as a mission and not as a misfortune, as a catalysing force for coexistence between Christians Muslims and Jews, as a cultural force which diffuses violent fundamentalism.
But this pope and this trip were not understood. Above all by us Catholics. Many Vatican personalities and Christian leaders in the Holy Land had advised the pope to postpone his journey because of political concerns. And yet, Benedict XVI continued to insist that this journey was for him, a pilgrimage of peace. And when he took those first steps on that pilgrimage, he found himself caught up in crossfire of criticism.
For far too long now a campaign aiming to denigrate the person and message of Benedict XVI is being waged. A campaign that during this journey arrived at the point of making false accusations against him, for “having said too much”, for “having said too little”, for not having said or done “enough”. From the outset it was evident that these charges – from Jews and Muslims, Palestinians and Israelis – were prepared well ahead of his arrival, almost like an orchestrated alliance to sully through criticism a voice of hope from the Middle East.
And here were find another exceptional aspect of this voyage. Because the pope, during his pilgrimage of peace, dared to say that peace in the Middle East is possible now and that Israelis and Palestinians can live together, that Islam can be corrected of its desire for violence and return to the cultural splendour it once knew.
It is this, the pope’s realism, that critics want to suffocate. Saying peace is possible, means taking the legs from under all those who, as we speak, are sharpening the knives of war. In Israel, Netanyahu’s government is pushing for a military solution to Tehran’s nuclear ambitions; Iran, particularly for election purposes, is increasingly challenging towards the international community; in Lebanon the uncertain election results (and the feared victory of Hezbollah) risks opening another war with Israel. In the coming weeks anti-gas masks will be distributed throughout Israel and military exercises are underway to counter possible attacks from Lebanon, Syria and Iran.
The pope, unarmed and defenceless, beneath the down pour of criticism which failed to stop him, has shown once again that war is not inevitable; it is wanted by men for petty reasons. And above all he said that peace is a gift from God, to be asked for each and every day, and fruit of mankind’s responsibility.
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