The Pope’s Middle East Game of Shrines

Pope Francis hoped he might help bring peace to the Middle East, but set off a firestorm over a contested holy site. Maybe he should try healing the rift with the Orthodox church instead.

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Pope Francis is off on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land this week in search of reconciliation and peace. His tour of the Middle East includes meetings with King Abdullah II and Queen Rania of Jordan, a visit to Bethlehem, trips to the Wailing Wall and the Holocaust museum, and meetings with both President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The director of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace, Stephen Colecchi, described Pope Francis as “perfect” for the task. He pointed out that “one of the reasons he chose the name Francis is because of who St. Francis of Assisi was: a man of peace, of the poor, who cared for creation… Inevitably, people will look at the visit of the Holy Father to this region that has known so much conflict as the visit of a pilgrim for peace.”

The Palestinian Archbishop Maroun Lahham, vicar of Jordan for the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, added that in addition to words of hope they are “expecting him to offer some words of peace and justice.”

It seems that those who have watched Francis revolutionize public perception of the Catholic church are hopeful that the Pope can bring his golden touch to the globe’s most intractable political situation.

Pope Francis seems to be able to work PR miracles, but is he the man to bring peace to the Middle East?

Recent lower stakes events in Israel indicate that we shouldn’t hold our breath. Not everyone is happy to let the pope play the humble pilgrim.

Last week hundreds of Orthodox Jews gathered to protest plans for the pope to celebrate a mass in the Cenacle, or Upper Room, on Mount Zion near the walls of the Old City, the traditional location for the Last Supper celebrated by Jesus before his arrest and execution.

The problem? The ground floor of the structure is revered by Jews as the final resting place of King David. Since the British mandate, religious activity at the site has been carefully handled, with Jews, Christians, and Muslims all having access, but religious rituals being excluded. But recently the Vatican has been in negotiations with Israel to (re)acquire control of the site, and rumors have spread that a deal has already been struck. Both Rabbi Yitzhak Goldstein, head of the Diaspora Yeshiva, and Mohammed Dajani Daoudi, a professor at Jerusalem’s al-Quds university, expressed fears about the Vatican’s potential acquisition of the site.

One Da Vinci Code-style conspiracy maintains that in exchange for control of the Cenacle the Vatican will hand over a candelabrum supposedly salvaged from the destroyed Second Jewish Temple.

The immediate fear is that Francis’s celebration of the mass could itself contaminate the holiness of the site. Once Jewish protestor, Yitzahak Batson, told AFP, “When ‘the crusaders’ come here making the sign of the cross and all kinds of rituals, this place will become idolatrous for us, and we will not have the right to pray there any more.”

These kinds of rumors may seem fringe or far-fetched, but they encapsulate the intersection of religious power, history and mythology in sacred space. The land of milk and honey also contains sacred memories and divine power. The belief that holiness can be corrupted by the presence and worship of other religious groups means that Francis is more likely to find himself on shaky ground than walking on water. On the solid ground of the Holy Land, Francis’s ethereal power meets it match.

This is why Francis’s planned meeting with Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and leader of the Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, is also the portion of his trip with the greatest chance of success. While the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches have been formally divided since the Great Schism of 1054, they have been taking steps towards unity since the meeting of Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I 50 years ago. Many hope that this meeting will be a decisive step towards reconciliation between the churches.

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Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians have becomes increasingly skilled at negotiating the more tangible aspects of religious power. They already share access to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Christ’s burial in Jerusalem, and in 2008 Pope Benedict XVI gifted the relics of two prominent Christian saints to Patriarch Bartholomew. The ability to compromise on issues of access to sacred space and objects means that much of the battle is already won.

The Pope may be going to Israel in search of world peace, but he might just have to settle for Christian unity. It’s not a bad consolation prize.