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Everyone should apologise during papal visit
Published in Daily News Egypt on 11 - 05 - 2009

When the Vatican announced that Pope Benedict XVI would embark on a pilgrimage to Jordan, the occupied West Bank and Israel, senior cardinals mobilized a massive media campaign in anticipation of angry reactions from Jews, Muslims and Orthodox Christians.
They even went so far as to embed journalists on the ecumenical equivalent of Air Force One. Comprehending the herculean task of climbing Mount Public Relations, the Vatican embedded an Al Jazeera journalist on board, hoping that the channel once unfairly and maliciously associated with Osama bin Laden, could carry the papal message that he was a pilgrim of peace .
But that has proven to be insufficient.
In Jordan, the first leg of the papal visit, the Muslim Brotherhood railed against the pontiff saying he was overdue for issuing a public apology for remarks he made about Islam and the Prophet Mohamed, which many Muslims at the time regarded as offensive and Islamophobic.
In 2006, while delivering a speech at the University of Regensburg in Bavari, Germany, Benedict quoted a 1391 passage in which a Byzantine emperor had indicated that Islam, an evil and inhuman religion, was spread by the sword.
His remarks were ill-advised as they were self-righteous; during the Middle Ages, millions of people were put to the sword by Christ s soldiers who marched through European villages murdering and pillaging Jews and non-Catholics. In hopes of bringing civilization to the New World, they plowed through the Aztec and Incan jungles, eradicating entire societies in their wake.
After an international outcry, Benedict said he was deeply sorry for the reactions to his speech and that the passage did not reflect his personal opinion.
But many in Jordan say this did not come far enough and demanded a public apology.
While visiting the King Hussein mosque in Amman, Benedict said he had profound respect for Islam and called on Muslims to safeguard the rights of Christians in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq where the ancient community has been targeted and slaughtered in the war-ravaged country since the US-led invasion.
But Orthadox Christians in the region say the pope has ignored visiting their churches and holy sites and they accuse him of enflaming tensions between their beleaguered community and the Muslims.
Many Muslims in the region would agree. They say that if the Vatican can issue repeated public apologies for the Holocaust, it can do the same for offending Muslims.
Not so fast, say their Jewish cousins. Since World War II, the Jews have been angry with the Vatican for not condemning their slaughter, not intervening, and often offering what they say is implicit support for Nazi atrocities against their communities and a dozen or so other races and minorities.
Jews are also aghast that Benedict will beatify Pope Pius XII who ran the Church during World War II.
The fact that Benedict, a German, was a member of the Hitler Youth brigades, many of which were responsible for beating Jews in the streets of Berlin and Vienna, further enrages their sensitivities.
Benedict s supporters say that membership in the Hitler Youth was mandatory for all German boys.
Like their Muslim Brotherhood counterparts, Israel s Jews say such explanations are not enough.
Earlier this year, the Rabbinate in Israel severed relations with the Vatican after Benedict revoked an ex-communication order on Richard Williamson, a Holocaust-denying bishop, who will also be welcomed back into the fold of the Roman Catholic Church.
Hoping to reach out to Jews, the pontiff will visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem in one of the final stops in his pilgrimage, and in support of Palestinian Christians, visit Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, which the Bible says is the birthplace of Jesus Christ.
He is also expected to visit a Palestinian refugee camp but that act of solidarity with Arab suffering comes after he meets with Avigdor Lieberman, a radical rightist and the Israeli foreign minister.
Lieberman and other Israeli leaders were all gung-ho during the Israeli attacks on Gaza in January. Many Palestinians say that if the pope wants to express solidarity with Palestinians, he should visit Gaza, one of the most densely-populated places in the world where civilians continue to survive despite abject poverty and appalling conditions.
He is expected to call on Palestinian Christians to stay in the occupied territories echoing a similar appeal he made to Christians in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.
Since 2000, emigration of Christian communities from the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and Palestine, has surged. Unfortunate and shameful, as Arab Christians have been as much a fabric of the combined heritage of the Middle East as have Jews, Muslims, Druze and Mandeans.
Certainly, the contradiction of tensions and divisions between the followers of different religious traditions, sadly, cannot be denied, Benedict said in Jordan. However, is it not also the case that often it is the ideological manipulation of religion, sometimes for political ends, that is the real catalyst for tension and division?
The pope has reiterated that his trip is not political.
This is astonishingly naive; one cannot visit the Middle East without expecting to be baptized in the geopolitical conflicts that have ruined this region for centuries.
During the Iran-Iraq war, both sides quoted verses from the Quran to justify attacking the other. Hamas calls itself the Islamic resistance movement; Hezbollah says it is the Party of God, although I must confess, I see no rationale why God would require a party; Jews in Israel say God gave them the parched land to make a home in; Christian evangelicals urge massive support for Israel against Muslims; the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan and Egypt use Islam to justify opposition to their governments.
And recently, revelations that US troops in Afghanistan were proselytizing (similar news emerged in Iraq following the US invasion) do not bode well.
Religion and politics are one and the same in this part of the world; zealous bedfellows. The pope should have anticipated that his trip was as likely to succeed as it was to end in miserable failure.
However, those demanding apologies from the pope cannot claim any moral high ground. Muslims are yet to acknowledge and condemn the horrors of suicide bombings; the stoning, beheading, and setting on fire of young women on the mere suspicion that they have engaged in extra-marital and pre-marital sex; and the radical hate speech that is unfortunately uttered from many a pulpit. Jordan is itself not immune to criticism - honor killings continue to plague the social fabric there and the government has yet to seriously prosecute offenders.
Israeli society should also not cast stones, either - the continuing occupation, stealing of Palestinian lands, beating of Arab farmers at the hands of Jewish settlers (many of whom were not even born in the region) is appalling. The siege and wars on Gaza, the war against Lebanon; the list goes on and on.
One can only hope for better odds once Barack Obama addresses the Muslim World from Cairo on June 4.
Alex Gainem is a journalist and commentator who has been writing on Middle Eastern affairs since 2001.


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