Sandro Magister’s website remains the publicly available guide to Vatican politics — I have quoted him frequently in past “Spengler” essays — and the linked report on Benedict XVI in the Holy Land is essential reading. The strongest objections to the Pope’s visit, Magister writes, came from Arab Christians in the Holy Land, even though the Pope had declared that a main purpose of his visit is to strengthen the Christian community:
With my visit [said Benedict the Sunday before his departure] I intend to strengthen and encourage the Christians of the Holy Land, who must face numerous difficulties on a daily basis. As successor of the apostle Peter, I will communicate to them the closeness and support of the entire body of the Church.
But as Sandro Magister observes,
The Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, has confirmed this in an interview: the reasons of the opponents were even explained to Benedict XVI in person. The main concern of the opponents was that the pope’s trip in part because of his extremely positive stance on religious dialogue with Judaism could be to Israel’s political advantage.
As I wrote in the On the Square Blog on March 30, the dwindling minority of Christians in the Middle East blames Zionism for inflaming the Muslim world against them and destroying the relatively stable dhimmi existence that their community had maintained (“enjoyed” is the wrong word). At the same time a growing congregation of Hebrew-speaking Catholics has emerged in Israel, in part due to Eastern European and Filipino immigration. It is served by Hebrew-speaking priests some of whom are converts from Judaism but continue to observe some Jewish practices.
The pope’s pastoral emphasis on the Arab Catholic population addresses a deep dismay among Middle Eastern Catholics, whose ancient community is disappearing. According to Magister, representatives of this community remonstrated strongly against the pope for his open sympathy towards Judaism and the State of Israel as a realization of scriptural prophecy, but (Magister explains):
Benedict XVI firmly stood his ground. For its part, Vatican diplomacy did all it could to pacify the opposition.
This explains, for example, the benevolence that the Vatican showed toward Israel’s archenemy, Iran, during and after the controversial Geneva conference on racism: a benevolence that many observers judged as disproportionate.
It may also explain the silence of the Vatican authorities and the pope himself on the treacherous hanging of the young Iranian woman Delara Dalabi in Tehran. In cases of this kind, publicized all over the world, the Holy See almost always raises its voice in defense of the victims of human rights violations: but this time, it decided to remain silent.
The Durban II conference in Geneva to which Magister refers gave a platform to Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. American and European community delegates walked out of Ahmadinejad’s speech, but not the Vatican delegation. This was noticed in Israel, where one organization urged Israeli drivers to honk their horns in protest at the hour of the pope’s speech at the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem. These protests appear to come from fringe groups, though, while most Israelis understand Benedict’s visit the same way that the Latin Patriarch does, as a show of friendship towards the Jewish State.
Two elements are at work here. One is nostalgia for a dying Christian community and a searing sense of regret for what might have been. The Vatican Islamologist Samir Khalid Samir, an Arab Christian, gave an interview to an Italian newspaper on the eve of the pope’s departure, Magister reports, envisioning a central role for Arab Christians in the Middle East:
“Previously, the Nahdah, the Arab renaissance that took place between the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth century was essentially produced by the Christians [Samir said]. Now once again, a century later, the same thing is happening, although the Christians are in the minority in Arab countries. Today the ‘new’ elements in Arab thinking are coming from Lebanon, where the interaction between Christians and Muslims is the most lively. Here there are five Catholic universities, in addition to the Islamic and state institutions. There are radio and television stations, newspapers and magazines of Christian origin, for which everyone writes, Muslims, secularists, Christians. Today, the cultural impact of the Christians in the Middle East takes place through the means of communication: Lebanon has become the leading center for book publication in the entire Arab world, printing Saudi books, Moroccan... The Muslims also understand that the Christians are the most active groups and the most dynamic cultural elements, as is often the case with minorities. Christians in Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries also have connections and contacts with the West, and for this reason their cultural role is fundamental. Many Muslims, including authoritative leaders, in both Lebanon and Jordan, but also in Saudi Arabia, have stated this publicly: we do not want the Christians to leave our countries, because they are an essential part of our societies.”
Fr. Samir is a Christian and tough-minded analyst of Islam, as I noted in a recent post. He is also an Arab, and looks backward to an era in which Christians (as he correctly observes) led the creation of Arab nationalism. As an Arab, he is rather unsympathetic to the State of Israel, as Magister observes. That is nostalgia, and has little bearing on the future.
The other element is more worrying over the long term. The overly tolerant attitude towards Iran among Vatican diplomats is symptomatic of a different problem. As the center of gravity of the Church shifts towards the Global South, the Church inevitably will absorb some of the political sentiments that prevail in the Global South, including hostility towards the “colonialist” industrial world. The anti-Israeli sentiments that prevail among third world diplomats already reverberate in the Vatican diplomatic corps. Benedict XVI, as good a friend as the Jews ever have had in the Christian world, “stood his ground,” as Sandro Magister commented, and we pray that future popes will stand their ground as well.