By Cristina Reilly
Within a week of Salman Taseer’s assassination, Pope Benedict called with courageous clarity for Pakistan to repeal its blasphemy laws, risking an Islamist backlash. In contrast, a key annual meeting of international Catholic bishops last week in Jerusalem repeated a mixed message about the Israel/Palestine “conflict”.
The annual Holy Land Coordination (HLC) was set up by the then Pope in 1998 as a measure of support to stem the haemorrhaging population of Palestinian Christians, calling them the “Living Stones” of the Holy Land. The dozen bishops involved are all from North America and Europe, matching broadly the countries having political leverage in the region.
The 2011 meeting culminated in a threefold communiqué: a “Pledge of Prayer, Call for Pilgrimage, and Commitment to Pursue a Just Peace”. Lay Christians can only guess at the agonising dilemmas which produced this formula, which included reference to the 2010 meeting.
The local voice of the Living Stones are the present and previous Latin (that is, the Catholic) Patriarchs of Jerusalem, each outspoken in condemnation of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and illegal annexation of East Jerusalem. They worked with leaders of the other 13 Christian Churches in Palestine to produce the Kairos Document of December 2009 (not to be confused with the Kairos educational project from the US which featured in the 2010 agenda) which (recalling Kairos South Africa) proclaimed the Israeli occupation as “a sin against God and humanity”. Somehow, the HLC has never formally mentioned Kairos.
The visiting Bishops and their dioceses each have deep bonds with Holy Land institutions and Palestinian people. But the Papal Nuncio’s 2010 address concentrated on the delicate relationship between the Vatican and the State of Israel which it formally recognised only in 1993. His concern was the unresolved uncertainties about church property confiscated after 1948 and the threat to taxation exemptions on church buildings and land. The 2011 communiqué’s priority appears to be easing the movement through Israeli checkpoints of Catholic clergy.
Commentators will be surprised that the Church which has berated itself for its “institutional” response to paedophile scandals could create such a false impression of being preoccupied with its bricks and its cloth in Israel-Palestine. Ironically, Israelis still make similar accusations about the Church’s behaviour before the Jewish Holocaust. Part of the tangled Catholic dilemma is somehow making amends for the past suffering of the Jews by making allowances for what the far-from-Judaic state of Israel does now.
In HLC statements, the Palestinian situation is paired with religious extremism, persecution and martyrdom elsewhere in the Middle East. This leaves a blurred impression that Islamism is to blame everywhere and that Christians murdered in churches in Baghdad and Egypt are of more consequence than Israeli crimes against humanity in the West Bank and Gaza.
Similarly the Call for Pilgrimage does little to slow the stranglehold of the Palestinian tourism economy as Israel works towards a monopoly of the pilgrim trade. In these circumstances it is small comfort for the Living Stones to be told that they share the sacrificial Cross with the Lamb of God, while the bishops fly home.