Pope Francis cuts through divisions in the Holy Land

Pope Francis cuts through divisions in the Holy Land

AD2000 Report

On his recent visit to Israel, Jordan and Palestine, Pope Francis cut through decades, perhaps centuries, of suspicion and division, to reach out to Jews and Muslims, while speaking out for the Middle East's beleaguered Christian minority.

It was a distinctive mark of the Holy Father's visit that he was accompanied on the trip by two friends from Argentina, the Jewish rabbi, Abraham Skorka, and the Muslim cleric, Sheikh Omar Abboud.

Not surprisingly, Pope Francis took the occasion to pray at the Jewish holy site, the Western (Wailing) Wall, which is all that remains of King Herod's Temple, destroyed by the Roman army of Titus in 70AD, and the mosque, the Dome of the Rock, which is one of the holiest sites of Islam.

During his three day visit, the Holy Father first visited Bethany beyond the Jordan, the site where John the Baptist was baptising. There, Pope Francis addressed refugees and the physically disabled.

The following morning, he travelled to Palestine to visit Bethlehem, meeting with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, saying Mass, and praying the Regina Caeli.

He had lunch with Palestinian families at the Franciscan convent of Casa Nova, and then paid a private visit to the Grotto of the Nativity. After this, he was greeted by refugee children, and then departed by helicopter for Israel.

At the Apostolic Delegation in Jerusalem, the Pope then met Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I, the two church leaders signing a joint declaration, after which there was a public ecumenical meeting at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre.

On 26 May 26, Pope Francis met Jerusalem's Grand Mufti, the Sunni cleric entrusted with the city's Muslim holy places at the Dome of the Rock.

He prayed at the Wailing Wall and laid a wreath at Mount Herzl, the site of Israel's national cemetery, and then spoke at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial, and met with Jerusalem's chief rabbis.

In the afternoon he met in private with Patriarch Bartholomew, at the Orthodox parish on the Mount of Olives, after which he met with priests, religious, and seminarians at the Church of Gethsemane.

Later, Pope Francis celebrated Mass with the Bishops of the Holy Land in the Upper Room where Jesus is believed to have celebrated the Last Supper.

There will be many possible positive results from these meetings over the years ahead. One of them was that Pope Francis invited both the President of Israel and the President of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas, to visit Rome in June to pray together and discuss the possibility of peace in the Middle East.

Both leaders immediately accepted, and in this way, the Holy Father has reopened the possibility, however difficult, of a dialogue between Israel and the Palestinian Authority to discuss face-to-face the deep differences between them.

In the long run, however, the centrepiece of the Holy Father's visit was the meeting with the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople.

In their joint statement, the Pope and the Patriarch said, "Our meeting, another encounter of the Bishops of the Churches of Rome and Constantinople founded respectively by the two brothers, the Apostles Peter and Andrew, is a source of profound spiritual joy for us.

"It presents a providential occasion to reflect on the depth and the authenticity of our existing bonds, themselves the fruit of a grace-filled journey on which the Lord has guided us since that blessed day 50 years ago.

"Our fraternal encounter today is a new and necessary step on the journey towards the unity to which only the Holy Spirit can lead us, that of communion in legitimate diversity.

"We call to mind with profound gratitude the steps that the Lord has already enabled us to undertake. The embrace exchanged between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras here in Jerusalem [50 years ago], after many centuries of silence, paved the way for a momentous gesture, the removal from the memory and from the midst of the Church of the acts of mutual excommunication in 1054.

"This was followed by an exchange of visits between the respective Sees of Rome and Constantinople, by regular correspondence and, later, by the decision announced by Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Dimitrios, of blessed memory both, to initiate a theological dialogue of truth between Catholics and Orthodox ...

"While fully aware of not having reached the goal of full communion, today we confirm our commitment to continue walking together towards the unity for which Christ our Lord prayed to the Father so 'that all may be one' (Jn 17:21)."

The Holy Father and Patriarch Bartholomew also called for dialogue with Judaism and Islam, and for the rights of Christians in the Middle East to be protected. They said:

"We invite all Christians to promote an authentic dialogue with Judaism, Islam and other religious traditions. Indifference and mutual ignorance can only lead to mistrust and unfortunately even conflict.

"From this holy city of Jerusalem, we express our shared profound concern for the situation of Christians in the Middle East and for their right to remain full citizens of their homelands.

"We especially pray for the Churches in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, which have suffered most grievously due to recent events."

One of the most notable consequences of the visit was the announcement, after Patriarch Bartholomew returned to Istanbul, of a meeting in Nicaea, to mark the 1700th anniversary of the Council of Nicaea, where the Creed was first promulgated.

Speaking exclusively with Asia-News, the Patriarch said that he and Pope Francis, "agreed to leave as a legacy to ourselves and our successors a gathering in Nicaea in 2025, to celebrate together, after 17 centuries, the first truly ecumenical synod, where the Creed was first promulgated".

The fruits of Pope Francis' visit to the Holy Land will last for years.

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