Pope Francis, in reflecting during last Wednesday’s general audience about his recent trip to the Holy Land, said, “It was a great gift for the Church, and I thank God for it. He led me through that blessed Land, which saw the historical presence of Jesus and where fundamental events for Judaism, Christianity and Islam took place.” He noted that one “purpose of this pilgrimage was to encourage in that region the path to peace, which is God’s gift and, at the same time, the task of men.”
Peace has long been elusive in that part of the world, and the reasons are complex and often confusing. “If you are not confused you don’t understand!” Visitors there are likely to hear this phrase over and over until the meaning becomes sort of evident. While Christians believe that God is Trinity—three Persons who are One—there is a geopolitical trinity of sorts that exists on the far side of the Mediterranean. It is known as the Holy Land, Israel, and Palestine—and all three names engender strong sentiments and deeply held beliefs that cannot be gauged properly unless one travels through the territory. Three languages, alphabets and religions form part of the landscape. Even the Sea of Galilee has three names; Tiberias and Yam Kinneret are the other two (and it is not a sea but a freshwater lake).
Divisions apply to Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike. Christian groups and denominations are too numerous to count, Jews are split among Orthodox, Conservative, and Liberal persuasions. In the Muslim world, Shiites and Sunnis are often at each other’s throat. Wandering through the Holy Land a pilgrim comes across a Bethlehem Wall, as offensive as the Berlin Wall once was, that cuts through “The Little Town of Bethlehem” complete with barbed wire, control tower and as much political graffiti as its former German counterpart. Bethlehem survives on tourism. A similar wall divides east and west Jerusalem.
Interestingly, 2013 marked the 65th anniversary of the State of Israel, a creation of the United Nations. Not in commemoration thereof, but unclear as to why, in November 2012 the United Nations General Assembly voted for the designation “State” of Palestine so that Palestinians are given enhanced status but remain as non-member observers without voting rights.
In recent travels throughout the trinitarian land, I saw no evidence of the Israeli political anniversary, nor any sign of the enhanced status for Palestine. But there were hordes of visitors to the Holy Land, pilgrims one and all, in search of the places near, dear and sacred in the Christian world. On a visit to the shrine of the Holy Sepulcher, hour-long waiting lines formed to witness the locus of the resurrection. They included a group of pilgrims from a modest parish in the Bronx (New York), a group of festive Nigerians in flowing robes, a sonorous group from Papua New Guinea, followed by a joyful group of Brazilians and a melting-pot medley of American pilgrims.
The center of this ethereal experience is a stay in Jerusalem where the religious and the secular form a unique blend. Pilgrims to that holy city who wandered off from their rigid tour schedules late last year found one very special art exhibition at the Israel Museum. The government of Italy made a temporary loan of the precious painting of Sandro Botticelli’s The Annunciation, a rare masterpiece from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, to help Israel celebrate its 65 years of existence. The painting is a premier work of art of the Renaissance, dating to 1481, depicting a major local event: the announcement of the coming of the Son of Man to a Jewish maiden from what is today the Palestinian town of Nazareth.
Besides depicting the sacred images, the painting also vividly portrays the technique of perspective. And mastering perspective is a necessary precondition for trying to make sense of the complex political, economic, social and, above all, religious, significance in the troubled land that surrounds the museum exhibit site.
Apart from the temporary presence of the Botticelli painting, Italian artistic and religious expression is present in the Holy Land on a more permanent basis. Pope Clement VI entrusted the Franciscan order with custody of the sacred sites in the Holy Land as far back as 1342, but more recently, seeking to enhance the solemnity of the places sacred to Christianity, the Franciscans enlisted the architectural services of Antonio Barluzzi who became responsible for the design and construction of nearly all the key Christian shrines. The Roman architect, who died in 1960, left a rich legacy in the Holy Land. The Church of All Nations in Jerusalem, the Church of the Beatitudes near the Sea of Galilee, and the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth are but a few of his major works. One of Barluzzi’s last monuments as he was nearly blind and close to death was the Chapel of Dominus Flevit on the Mount of Olives, whose window outlining a chalice and host, is positioned in the same direction that Christ faced when he wept over Jerusalem. It is of particular inspiration to priests. All of them attract pilgrims from across the globe.
The millions of visitors to religious places provide a significant contribution to the Israeli and Palestinian economies. This cannot be overestimated. Israel receives well over $5 billion in tourism revenues yearly. According to the Israeli Tourism Ministry, 56% of all visitors in 2012 were Christian (and half of those were Catholics), 24% were Jewish and the rest represented other religions or were unaffiliated. Continued tourism success depends on the prevalence of peace, which is always precarious.
Secular and other tourists go to Israel to visit relatives or friends, given the heavy migration to Israel after the Jewish state was founded. Others may wish to visit the splendid beaches along the Mediterranean coast which have attracted visitors for millennia. King Herod the Great built the splendid city of Caesarea in northern Israel around the time of Christ and today the ruins are a reminder of the might and splendor of the former Roman Empire complete with an Amphitheater still in use today, albeit with a more modern repertory, and an aqueduct that reminds us of the engineering genius of the ancient Romans.
Here, again, Christianity comes into play. It was from Caesarea that the Apostle Paul set sail to bring to the gentiles the message of Christianity, a faith that would spread to the then known world in just four centuries and thrive despite persecutions that only ended when the Emperor Constantine issued the Edit of Milan in 313 A.D., establishing the concept of religious tolerance that allowed Christians to emerge from the catacombs and build churches, cemeteries, and other centers of Christian significance.
While pilgrims will continue to come and go, this year the most anticipated visit to the Holy Land was Pope Francis’ own brief pilgrimage of peace in May. Following meetings with a plethora of dignitaries, the pontiff extended a special invitation to President Shimon Peres of Israel and Palestinian Authority President Mahmood Abbas to come to Rome to pray for peace (they will do so next Sunday, June 8th, which is Pentecost Sunday). This is a new take in the global quest for Middle East tranquility. Pope Francis already has a good track record on praying for peaceful endeavors given the 100,000 or people he attracted to St. Peter’s Square several months ago to pray that the Syrian war would not expand. Shortly thereafter President Obama decided not to send troops to that beleaguered country.
The Palestinians, who witnessed the State of Israel being founded by the then-newly formed United Nations in 1948, encounter steady difficulties in exercising their rights as enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. However, in addition to the November 2012 resolution on the “State of Palestine” (which enabled countries to extend full diplomatic recognition to the State of Palestine although several countries as diverse as China, Bulgaria and Nigeria, years ago established diplomatic relations, notwithstanding territorial disputes), the United Nations General Assembly voted, exactly a year later, to proclaim 2014 as the “International Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People”.
The official launch took place on January 16th with hopes that a two-state solution could be found soon. On that occasion, the current president of the General Assembly, John Ashe, stated: “Israel and Palestine must find agreement on the conditions in which they can live side by side in peace and security.” The complexities of the living arrangements currently in existence throughout the territory make this a most difficult task, in part because Christians, Jews and Muslims are interspersed, especially in the larger cities.
Events will be held throughout the year at the United Nations to highlight the plight of the Palestinians. Accommodation, tolerance, and good will, combined with improved economic well-being will help with the hoped for goal of peace with at least some security. But a complete solution to the “Palestinian question” remains a tough nut to crack.
Palestinian refugees, now numbering over 5 million, according to UN estimates, reside in camps overseen by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Middle East (UNWRA). Their numbers expand as lands are confiscated, houses demolished, small villages are destroyed and lives are disrupted. In their place, Israeli settlements arise as carefully and completely planned communities with all the amenities.
In particular, the Christian Palestinians, the descendants of the first disciples of Christ, are a dwindling group, victims of widespread persecution enveloping most of the Middle East and beyond. The extent of that suffering was brought to light when the Papal Nuncio to the United Nations, Archbishop Francis A. Chullikatt, read a statement on January 20th before the Security Council Open Debate on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. It detailed the predicament of Christians and outlined the Church’s concern and caring as manifested through educational, health care, and social services rendered to the most vulnerable, Christian and not. “Courageous decisions are seldom easy ones,” stated Archbishop Chullikatt, “and can make demands on us that may be politically difficult and unpopular. Yet when faced with the reality of conflict in the all right-minded people see the need for change. Peace is not simply the absence of war but requires that the demands of justice are met for all peoples and communities.”
People and places, sacred and profane, are incredibly intertwined with roots spanning two millennia. The disputed borders, the occupied lands and the uneasy co-existence among peoples could lead to an outbreak of more violence if the belligerencies in Syria in particular should spill over beyond its borders.
The geopolitical territory in question is a contested land where animosity and insecurity are rampant, that presents a confused image of the Holy Land, Israel and Palestine as distinct, diverse and divided. Pilgrims observe it without fully grasping the elements. Confusion is a way of life with no end in sight as a triune state remains elusive.