- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 1, 2000

A final headline about the pope's pilgrimage to the Holy Lands reads: "Ending Pilgrimage, Pope Asks Brotherhood." This, of course, is something the pope asked for before his pilgrimage, during its seven memorable days, and something he will ask for again. In the riven lands of the Middle East, brotherhood is as elusive as the olive branch, even when sought even when offered by so magisterial a presence as Pope John Paul II.

And he is magisterial. Frail, bent but resplendent in the white robes of his station, Pope John Paul II seemed to match the living antiquity of the Holy Lands he visited. Whether gazing across the hills of Jerusalem from Jordan, where the Bible says God showed Moses the Promised Land, or retracing the steps of Jesus through Israel and the Palestinian territories, the pope's pilgrimage served as a perhaps unexpected reminder to people of all faiths of the centrality of the Holy Lands in the history of civilization. In reaching out to all three Abrahamic faiths Judaism, Christianity, and Islam the pope was hoping to infuse the region with an interfaith spirit of reconciliation.

But such a spirit is a fragile presence in the hard face of tribal intolerance. And, as the week progressed, it became clear that some parties were more interested in reconciliation and peace than others. A few sought constantly to push the pope politically, hoping to receive the papal nod, for example, for respective Israeli and Palestinian claims to Jerusalem. One long-planned interfaith gathering, probably the trip's low point, became acrimonious even before it began when Grand Mufti Ekrema Sabri, the top Muslim cleric in the Palestinian territories, refused to attend because, according to the New York Times, "he couldn't sit with rabbis as long as Palestine was occupied by Israelis" (the mufti gave subsequent interviews belittling the suffering of the Holocaust). Later, the Muslim cleric who did come, a Palestinian official newly promoted for the occasion, gave a breathtakingly anti-Israeli harangue before leaving abruptly during a children's choral performance, whispering to the pope that he had a "previous engagement."

The Vatican, of course, has long supported a Palestinian homeland. One wonders whether the pope's hands-on experience, pitting notions of peace and harmony against human intractability, provided him with any new insights into the political stalemate. Interesting to note is that while the New York Times reported that Vatican officials were initially nervous about their relationship with Israel, "they left feeling a stronger bond. In contrast, the Palestinians, whose cause the Vatican officials support, somewhat disappointed them by failing to take advantage of the worldwide platform they were afforded by the pope's visit. The officials were unnerved by the outbreak of violence among Palestinians after the pope left a refugee camp … and by the strident political advocacy by Islamic clerics, one of whom wagged his finger in the pope's face."

For the most part, the pope sailed above the politics on the ground, even when visiting a Palestinian camp peopled by refugees of the 1948 war for Israeli independence. Setting his course mainly by the spiritual and historic markers of the land, the pope visited not only holy Christian sights, but also Yad Vashem, where he movingly deplored the evil of the Holocaust and the suffering of its victims. At the Western Wall, where Jews through the ages have offered their prayers, the pope offered one of his own, slipping a folded paper into a crevice of the old stone. Taken from his homily of repentance, the prayer asked God for forgiveness for the suffering of the Jews and averred a commitment to "genuine brotherhood with the people of the covenant." No wonder papal biographer George Weigel, writing in the Wall Street Journal, sees Jews and Catholics "on the threshold of a new conversation, of a sort unseen for more than 1,900 years" Pope John Paul II has now returned to the Vatican, leaving the Holy Land behind. He may not have performed any miracles, but he left his mark, one that will not soon be forgotten.

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