Just weeks after the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed once again, Pope Francis went on a three-day visit to the Middle East, including Jordan, the West Bank and Israel. After visiting Jordan and the West Bank, he will wrap up his Middle East tour today, paying homage to Jews killed during the Holocaust.
Despite Pope Francis’ stated purpose of his Middle East trip as a purely religious one meant to improve ties with the Orthodox Church, his trip is full with far more significance. From travelling directly to the West Bank and not entering through Israel – and being the first pontiff to do so – to his surprise stop in Bethlehem on Sunday to pray for five minutes at the infamous “Israeli Separation Wall” that is part of the barrier Israel is building in and around West Bank, and to his invitation calling for the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to the Vatican to pray for peace – which was accepted by both leaders -, Pope Francis has for sure made a political statement out of his Middle East trip. Even the Pope’s Spokesperson, Federico Lombardi, said the invitation addressed to Mahmoud Abbas and Shimon Peres was a papal peace initiative which might be the first of its kind, according to BBC.
Pope Francis’ unscheduled stop at the “Apartheid Wall” came after he called for an end to the “increasingly unacceptable” Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He also mentioned the “tragic consequences of the protracted conflict” and talked about the need “to intensify efforts and initiatives” and added that a negotiated accord is needed, calling on Israeli and Palestinian leaders to show the necessary courage to forge a deal. This follows the reference to Mahmoud Abbas as the president of the “state of Palestine” in Vatican’s official programme. The United Nations General Assembly recognized the State of Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem and offered the non-member observer status, in late November 2012. Despite the recognition, Israel still remains in full control of East Jerusalem, annexed in 1967, and the West Bank.
How far will Pope Francis go with his involvement in the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians? An answer might be provided by the meeting scheduled with the leaders of both sides next month. He is also expected to further press for a two-state solution during the last day of his Middle East trip.
His unconventional way of ruling the Catholic Church has already circled the world and he definitely is one unpredictable and affable religious leader who has reformed the image of the unapproachable Catholic Church into a champion of the poor. The Time magazine named him “The person of the year”, last year, and characterized him as “the septuagenarian superstar” who is “poised to transform a place that measures change by the century.” “What makes this Pope so important is the speed with which he has captured the imaginations of millions who had given up on hoping for the church at all,” the magazine wrote. In April 2014, the Time magazine listed him also in its “100 most influential people” annual list, having president Obama referring to him as the leader that “makes us want to be better people.” And indeed, unlike other popes, he became the leading moral authority in the world.
Will this be enough for Pope Francis to succeed where others have failed so many times before? In late April, the Israeli government has decided to put on hold the peace talks with the Palestinians following the new unity agreement between rival Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, as Israel and the US consider Hamas a “terrorist” group. The nine-month peace initiative by US Secretary of State John Kerry is thus heading towards another failure. Pope Francis’ invitation advanced to the Palestinian and Israeli leaders to join him in Vatican next month to pay for peace was seen as intriguing. Opposite to Abbas, Peres, 90, does not play any decision-making role in Israeli diplomacy and he is set to step down this summer. Furthermore, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is already irritated by the politicians trying to make outreach efforts to push for a resumption of the peace negotiations. This being said, a joint prayer might not be enough to substitute for political negotiations, even if it can bring a positive change in public perceptions on the conflict. But where political negotiations have failed so many times before, a religious approach to what can be called a religious conflict in essence might still be an answer.
However, it is worth to note the Catholic Church itself has a great global impact. The Holy See has also a special non-member status in the United Nations, which no other religious organization has. To a certain extent, it has influence on global politics. The influence of Pope Francis goes beyond religion, as his messages have resonated with both Catholics and non-Catholics alike by focusing on human stories and human life in general.
In little more than a year since he began his papacy, Pope Francis has managed to influence not only people’s attitudes and religious leaders’ mindsets towards controversial issues like abortion, gay marriage and contraception, but also to influence president Obama’s speeches, as well as the political debate with his outspoken denunciation of global inequality and his critique of global capitalism. His latest move to schedule a meeting with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders can be seen as yet another of his efforts to reaffirm Vatican’s role as mediator in international diplomacy. Will he succeed in this new endeavour the same he succeeded in influencing the public opinion in the West? No matter the outcome, it is definitely one development worth following.