e-mail us
Sometimes showing up is enough

NCR Staff
Quneitra, Syria

In the middle of a trip dedicated to religious unity, Pope John Paul II took time for one of the most explicitly political acts of his pontificate. He visited a Syrian town on the Golan Heights that was destroyed by the Israelis in 1973.

In effect, the visit to Quneitra, 40 miles outside Damascus, handed an enormous propaganda victory to critics of Israeli policies in the Middle East.

The ostensible purpose for John Paul’s visit was to allow him to pray for peace in a Greek Orthodox church. But there are many places to pray other than the site Syrians have invoked for three decades as evidence of Israeli atrocities.

Israeli troops pulled out of Quneitra, then a city of 53,000, as part of a peace deal in 1973. They had occupied all of the Golan in 1967, then agreed to leave part of it to settle a second war six years later. Before leaving, they decimated the city. Current Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, then an army officer, ordered the bombing.

Today fewer than 2,000 people live in what is essentially a ghost town, said to be located along the road upon which Saul was traveling when he was asked by God why he persecuted Christians. Saul then became Paul, the great Christian apostle.

Standing atop the church the pope visited, one can see the current Israeli occupation zone, where giant windmills generate electricity from the intense winds that sweep the Golan Heights.

The Syrians exploited the public relations value of the visit to full effect, busing in journalists and treating them like visiting dignitaries. In one of the more surreal effects, while reporters looked over the rubble, young men in formal dress served them coffee.

Banners appeared en route reading, in Arabic and English, “We demand the end of occupation” and “We are struggling for freedom.” The one that sounded most like Big Brother read: “Equipped with our national unity and the leadership of our President Bashar Al-Assad, we seek a right and just peace, but we reject surrender.”

One journalist with a background in construction asserted that some of the rubble strewn on the streets was artificial, placed there to enhance the effect of devastation.

Inside the church, which had been looted by Israeli troops and is now unused, large posters displayed a letter from its former Greek Orthodox pastor. “How could they have done this?” it read. “How could human beings have done something like this?”

The letter accused the Israelis of a host of acts of desecration, including using hand grenades to open graves in order to steal jewelry.

The pope’s prayer, by way of contrast, was a softly stated call for peace. Speaking of the people of the Middle East, he asked God to “help them to break down the walls of hostility and division.”

Yet the pope added a sharper political edge by inserting at the last minute a reference to an Israeli incursion in the nearby Gaza Strip that left one dead and 10 wounded.

“Mindful of the news of conflict and death which even today comes from Gaza, our prayer becomes even more intense,” the pope said.

The obstacles to peace were clear even during the papal visit. A banner from Hezbollah, an Islamic group involved in the running conflict with the Israelis along the Syrian border, was visible in Quneitra. It read simply: “We are everywhere.”

The visit to Quneitra built on John Paul’s remarks the day before at the Damascus airport, where he said peace in the Middle East must be based in respect for United Nations resolutions. It was an indirect criticism of Israel, since the Israelis have ignored several U.N. votes on independence for Palestine.

The Vatican is said to be increasingly frustrated with Israel’s inability to resolve its conflict with the Palestinians, which fuels violence across the region. Among other things, that violence can endanger the small Christian communities scattered across the Islamic world.

In any event, most analysts felt that whatever the pope said in Quneitra was secondary. His most eloquent, and most political, statement was simply showing up.

National Catholic Reporter, May 18, 2001