Though Benedict XVI will go to the Holy Land next month as a pilgrim, the trip undoubtedly has a political dimension, acknowledges the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Fouad Twal.
By Marie-Armelle Beaulieu

In this interview provided by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land and adapted here, the archbishop speaks of the May 8-15 trip, and the challenge of finding the best time for a papal journey to a region plagued by conflict.

Q: Your Beatitude, Pope Benedict XVI’s pilgrimage is coming at a time when the country is going through another difficult period — so much so that Palestinian Christians were the first who proved to be skeptical about the journey. What do you have to say to them?

Archbishop Twal: It is true that the local Palestinian Christian community expressed its confusion, its questions, and its fears and let us know of these. Since we knew of His Holiness’ planned pilgrimage before they did, we also asked ourselves how opportune this journey was. The fact that the Holy Father is coming to a difficult region during a difficult period to meet extremely sensitive peoples gave us cause to reflect.

We talked with the organizers, with the Holy Father himself, and here in Jerusalem with our brother bishops in the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries in the Holy Land, sharing the same concerns as the local Christian community. But as a result of these exchanges and after seeing that the program of the pilgrimage takes care to have a good balance between the times given to Jordan, to

[the Palestinian Territories] and to Israel, we all ended up believing that this trip is and must be for the good, a blessing for everyone.

The worries – I would even say, the anguish – that you mention are in part legitimate, but I want to underline that they were – and still are here and there – felt by the Arab Christians living in the Territories and in Jerusalem. The reality of the Christians who live in Israel, and all the more so that of the Christians of Jordan, is an entirely different one; they see the Pope’s visit in a different light. In a diocese that lives extremely differing realities, we must try to have a more global vision of this visit and to consider it in all its dimensions: political and social and human and religious.

Nevertheless, these three points remain: the Holy Father is coming at a difficult time – especially after the war in Gaza – to a difficult region to visit very sensitive peoples.

Q: Are Jews, Christians, and Muslims all “sensitive”?

Archbishop Twal: Yes, each have their sensitivity, their point of view, and at present, all are preparing to take for themselves the best part of the cake that this visit represents …

Q: Basically, what is the motive for the Holy Father’s coming during this difficult period? One could have the impression that he is choosing the worst moment?

Archbishop Twal: No, no. Ever since his elevation to the pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI has expressed his desire to come as a pilgrim. Our bishops’ assembly invited him, I personally invited him, and he also received an invitation from the various civil authorities of Jordan, Israel, and [the Palestinian Territories].

On the other hand, preparations for the trip have been going on for months now; in between came the war in Gaza and the conflict thermometer rose. So what should be done? Wait for better times? But this region is never at peace! Wait until the Palestinian question is resolved? I’m afraid that two or three Sovereign Pontiffs will pass before it is definitively settled.

It’s the story of the glass that is half full or half empty … Some say: “The situation is difficult, so it would be better if he didn’t come.” Others on the contrary say: “The situation is difficult, so it would be better if he came.” And that is our position. During these difficult times, I want the Holy Father to come to help us to “superare”: to go beyond, to see further.

The Pope is coming to visit all the Churches, all the people who live in the Holy Land in order to encourage us to remain faithful to our mission, to our faith, and to our awareness of belonging to this Land.

We must also not forget that he is coming on pilgrimage. Image the negative consequences it would have on the pilgrimage industry – which is vital and of major importance – if the Pope himself were afraid of coming on pilgrimage! What would we tell so many tourists and pilgrims who cancel their visits? How could we encourage them as well to come to visit us?

One last point: I remind you that the Holy Father is 82 years old and that he expressed the desire to come to the Holy Land as a pilgrim. A pilgrimage coupled with an apostolic visit is always tiring … Now the Holy Father has the strength to live this.

Q: But pilgrims and tourists don’t have to address civil authorities …

Archbishop Twal: That is true, but the Christians all over the world who will be following the Pontiff’s pilgrimage won’t all make that political analysis. Most of them will only say: “If the Pope is not afraid, why should we be?”

To the pilgrim Pope, the local Christians say: “Ahlan wa sahlan!” “Welcome!” Their worry lies simply in the question: “What is he going to say?” Or rather: “What will he be made to say?”

Q: Precisely, Your Beatitude, the majority of the Israeli and international press is interpreting this trip from the angle of bringing peace to the Church’s relations with Judaism, especially after the Bishop Williamson affair. What worries the Palestinians is the profit that Israel as a state might draw from this trip.

Archbishop Twal: I understand that, and I know that each side will try to benefit as much as possible from this visit, both in Jordan and in Israel, in [the Palestinian Territories] and even at the heart of the local Church. That is yet another reason for each of us to be intelligent and to prepare.

Israel will do all it can to present its country in the best light. I understand that; that is its right.

It is not our task to criticize or to denounce what the others do. Our job is to do our part to make the visit as pastoral as possible; it is our responsibility to do our part so that our Christians might have the possibility to see the Holy Father, to pray with him and to hear his message of peace and of justice for all.

If one studies all the messages published by the Holy See concerning the Holy Land, Iraq and the Middle East, one can see that we have an unheard of capital of addresses, support, interventions that are rich in humanity, the Christian spirit and justice. There is no doubt that the Holy Father will continue in this sense during his visit to the Holy Land.

It falls upon us, the local Church, to watch over the program’s equilibrium: the sites to visit, the persons to meet, the addresses to be made. It is our job “to give the Holy Father a helping hand.” He is constantly informed of our situation, of its positive aspects as well as its negative ones. He knows our fears, our anxieties, as well as our hopes and our joy in receiving him in close collaboration with all the civil authorities.

Q: The apostolic nuncio said that this journey would not be political, but that it could be understood politically.

Archbishop Twal: In this country, it is unthinkable that there not be a political dimension. The nuncio is right in insisting that this is first and foremost a pilgrimage. But we mustn’t fool ourselves: there is 100% a political dimension. Every day, every gesture, every meeting and every visit, everything will have a political connotation. Here we breathe politics, our oxygen is politics. What aggravates politics is that everyone does politics and we don’t leave that matter to the politicians and to Parliament; each one adds his or her grain of salt and that doesn’t fix anything. So it is unthinkable that this pilgrimage will not have a political dimension.

Q: That being the case, can we expect some political progress? And/or progress in the relations between the Holy See and the state of Israel?

Archbishop Twal: The Holy See always made the first step, it always took the initiative in dialogue and in encounter. And now, during this period, in spite of questions, in spite of fears, the Holy Father has the courage to take the first step in the hopes that the Holy See’s relations with the state of Israel will improve; also in the hopes that on this happy occasion, Israel will at least make a courtesy gesture for the advancement of peace.

As for the famous agreement – still being discussed – which is supposed to settle relations between the Holy See and Israel, if the experts are to be believed, progress will be made.

Q: For the past five years, all the communities claim progress, but nothing comes to a conclusion.

Archbishop Twal: That is true, but in this area – as well as in that of peace – things are progressing, even if this progress is not proclaimed from the rooftops. If that were the case, some “would spoil the diplomatic soup” and would complicate life for us. During this period that is rich with encounters and dialogue, the key word for me is trust. But it is true that courageous gestures should be made that are liable to lead to trust.

It is undeniable that mutual trust is lacking.

Q: As John Paul II did when he called the Jews “our elder brothers in faith,” Benedict XVI will certainly underline Christians’ attachment by their very nature to Judaism. But since everything here is politicized, this brings with it the risk of being interpreted by some as a support for Israel as a state. Does that not also include the risk of placing the Arab Christians in a precarious balance both here and in all of the Middle East?

Archbishop Twal: It is difficult to find a good balance and to maintain it. Having said that, the more the Vatican is a friend of Israel, the more it will be able to draw profit from that friendship for greater peace and justice. If the tension continues between the universal Catholic Church and Israel, we will all lose, we Christians and we Arabs. On the other hand, if Israel trusts the Holy See entirely, based on that friendship, the Holy See will be able to speak of truth, of justice and of peace — for with the language of friendship, it is possible to say things to one another that one would refuse to hear if it came from an enemy.

Being friends and speaking as such is good for everyone: for the friend, for Israel, and for the others. I just hope that the Holy See’s friendship with Israel is reciprocal.

I would draw your attention to the fact that the Holy Sees already has diplomatic relations with almost all the Arab countries, and that these relations are good. If you read the addresses to the Holy See by the Arab ambassadors, you see that they need the Church, not only the Holy See, but the Church wherever it is present in the world. We must have this world vision in order to understand the Holy See’s situation – this small State that is supported by the whole Catholic world – and we must not see things just from one angle, which deforms the whole vision.

The more the Holy See is friends with Israel, the more it can intervene for the good of all the inhabitants of the Holy Land: Jews, Muslims and Christians. That is our great wish.