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Dressing the wounds as bitter hatreds persists

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Dehaisheh Refugee Camp, West Bank

It was near Bethlehem that Pope John Paul II’s pilgrimage turned into a charged carnival of politics and nationalism.

Proceeding on March 22 from a reception by Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to a Mass near the Church of the Nativity, and then to a school in a refugee camp on a barren hillside, John Paul, to Palestinians, became a powerful symbol of solidarity.

“No one can ignore how much the Palestinian people have had to suffer in recent decades,” the pope said upon his arrival in Bethlehem. “Your torment is before the eyes of the world. And it has gone on too long.”

In the Dehaisheh refugee camp, home to more than 8,500 mostly impoverished Moslems who live in drab concrete structures, the pope urged residents not to lose heart.

“Dear refugees, do not think that your present condition makes you any less important in God’s eyes,” he said. “Never forget your dignity as his children.”

Organizers at the camp had seated the pope beneath a banner in English that was actually a powder keg. It said, “The right of return is a sacred right.” At the camp’s entrance the right of return was expressed by young refugees through song, dance and art.

The pope was thus encouraged, apparently unknowingly, to endorse the most controversial demand in the Arab-Israeli conflict: that Palestinian refugees and their descendants, who lost their homes during the 1948 War from which Israel emerged, be enabled to return to their places of origin. Most of these are now Israeli farms or towns.

Israel says it cannot absorb the 3.1 million Palestinian refugees without forfeiting its very identity as a Jewish state.

Yet the pope took pains to signal solidarity with Israelis, too. In Jerusalem on Thursday, John Paul shifted gears from current events to history, standing in the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and expressing grief for Jewish suffering during the Second World War.

“There are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah,” the pope said. “I assure the Jewish people that the Catholic church, motivated by the gospel law of truth and love, and by no political considerations, is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place.”

While some Jewish leaders were disappointed that John Paul did not acknowledge a Christian role in making the Holocaust possible, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said the pope had done more than any leader “to dress the bitter wounds that festered over many bitter centuries.”

The pope also was due Thursday to lead Mass in the chapel of the Last Supper on Mount Zion, meet with Israeli President Ezer Weizman and lead an interfaith gathering. On Friday, he was to hold Mass at the Mount of Beatitudes and meet with Barak and on Saturday to visit Nazareth. On Sunday, the last day of the pilgrimage, the pope was due to visit the Western Wall and Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and lead Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

John Paul’s officials have repeatedly insisted that his trip is spiritual rather than political. Yet Palestinians were heady with what seemed to them a ringing endorsement of their political aims.

In remarks before celebrating Mass in Bethlehem, the pope sounded like a head of state, saying the Palestinians have a “natural right” to a homeland. He also insisted that U.N. resolutions on the Arab-Israeli conflict would need to be implemented and said he hoped his visit would serve as a reminder that “decisive action” is needed on behalf of the Palestinians.

“The Holy See has always recognized that the Palestinian people have the natural right to a homeland and the right to be able to live in peace and tranquility with the other peoples of this area,” he said.

In policy terms, the statements did not depart from traditional Vatican positions, and thus did not burn any bridges with Israel on the eve of the historic visit to Yad Vashem.

In an embarrassment for the Palestinian Authority, youths from Dehaisheh pelted Palestinian policemen with stones shortly after the pope’s departure. The violence was said by Palestinians to have been touched off by anger over tough treatment meted out to some camp residents by Palestinian security forces.

The pope’s first brush with the zero sum politics of the Middle East came almost as soon as he landed near Tel Aviv on Tuesday on a flight from Jordan. After being presented by Israeli children with a jar of sacred soil to kiss, the pope was told by President Ezer Weizman that Jerusalem is “the eternal capital” of Israel.

In receiving the pope in Bethlehem, Arafat rebutted by terming Jerusalem “the eternal capital” of Palestine. There too the pope kissed a bowl of soil, a potent symbol for Palestinians since the gesture is generally reserved for sovereign nations.

In Dehaisheh, tents were erected for the pope to press the point that the camp is but a temporary home. In front of the camp, a local artist displayed a tire, two bottles and a piece of wood split in half. The tire symbolized the burning tires of the Intifada, the 1987-93 uprising against Israel. The bottles conjured up Molotov cocktails used during clashes with Israeli soldiers, and the wood - splattered with red paint - symbolized the frustrated right of return.

In welcoming remarks, Assad Abdul-Rahman, the senior PLO official handling refugee affairs, urged the pontiff not to think of Israel in biblical terms but rather as a victimizer of the Palestinians.

“The narrow concept of the promised land has caused all of us a lot of suffering,” Abdul-Rahman said. “It is time for this to come to an end. There is no way of turning this promised land into a promising land without the right of return of the Palestinian refugees.”

John Paul, who oversaw Vatican recognition of the Jewish state in 1993 and is viewed by Israeli officials as a friend of the Jewish people, stopped short of openly endorsing the right of return. But at one point he seemed to be leaning closer to the Palestinian view of history than the Israeli one, telling his audience: “You bear the sad memories of what you were forced to leave behind.”

In traditional Israeli historiography, Palestinians left their homes voluntarily, thinking they would soon return after an Arab victory. In the Palestinian view, the refugees were forcibly expelled.

Thiab Ayyoush, president of al-Quds Open University in Jerusalem, praised the pope’s visit and statements.

“We know there is a kind of sensitivity for every guest visiting Palestine about expressing ideas on the full rights of the Palestinians. But at least we know that his holiness the pope understands our issue and is with our national and human rights. I didn’t expect from him more than what he gave. We are satisfied with it,” Ayyoush said.

The Mass in Manger Square was briefly held up when a Moslem call to prayer resounded from the adjacent Omar Ibn al-Khattab mosque, causing the pope to pause and the Latin Patriarch of the Holy Land, Michel Sabbah, to declare that it was a symbol of Christian-Moslem coexistence.

Not everyone agreed. “They don’t respect our prayers,” said Ghadir Hilal, 17, one of several thousand attending the Mass.

Hamdi Hamida, 29, emerging from mosque prayers, termed the pope’s visit “positive for peace.” But Mahmoud Ali Saad, 25, another Moslem worshipper, said it was insignificant. “This is very usual. We have a religious man visiting religious places. He cannot help us with our everyday life because of the presence of [Israeli] occupation. He cannot solve the problem that there is no land for our state.”

“For the Christians, he is a holy man,” Saad added. “For us, he is a regular guest.”

Christians, who comprise less than a third of Bethlehem’s population due to emigration in recent decades and a higher Moslem birth rate, said the pope’s presence was lifting their spirits.

“Today is one day that I don’t feel bad about being a minority,” said Suad Joseph, 30. Added Hiyam Balout, 37: “The whole world thinks that Palestine is a Moslem country. This visit is proof of our Christian presence.”

Israeli leaders, for their part, sought to play down the significance of John Paul’s pronouncements. “He made a speech about identification with the suffering of the Palestinians and we, too, think that there should be a just solution. That does not in any way mean the right of return,” said Haim Ramon, the minister responsible for the pope’s visit.

Ramon said the pope’s presence affords an opportunity for Israel to show the world that it is sovereign in East Jerusalem. That area, annexed to Israel’s capital after it was captured during the 1967 war, is also claimed by the Palestinians as the capital of the state to which they aspire.

“Yasser Arafat may sit in Bethlehem and talk about Jerusalem. But we are actually here in the city. We receive the pope in Jerusalem. We run this city and we rule in it,” Ramon told reporters. “The city is completely adorned by Israeli flags and all of it is under our control.”

Ramon was right. No Palestinian flags were visible Wednesday in East Jerusalem. Israeli police made sure of that.

Several Palestinians were “removed from the city” for putting up flags in the Sawane neighborhood near the pope’s lodgings, Jerusalem Police Spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said.

Nidal Abu Gharbiyeh, 29, said police forced him and 10 other Palestinian residents of Jerusalem who hung up flags to sign statements that they would stay out of the city until the pope leaves. Abu Gharbiyeh said he spent two days in jail for hanging up Palestinian flags.

Abdul-Rahman, the PLO official, told the pope at Dehaisheh that the 11 flag hoisters were the newest “refugees” created by Israel and were “deported from Jerusalem simply because they were trying to give you a warm Palestinian welcome.”

The full text of John Paul’s remarks at the Dehaisheh refugee camp and at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial can be found on the NCR Web site under http://www.natcath.com/NCR_Online/documents/index.htm. Wire services contributed to this report.

National Catholic Reporter, March 31, 2000