Holy Land

Passion, Not Prejudice-Mel Gibson’s Christ

By Deal W. Hudson

Mel Gibson’s Passion is finally in movie theaters. Now people can see for themselves what all the hubbub is about. Most, I believe, will leave the theater shaken to the core by the terrible beauty of Gibson’s masterpiece. The media-driven expectation of an anti-Semitic portrayal of the Jews will be swept away by the spectacle of a man of peace abused, scourged, crucified, betrayed, and abandoned by all but a few of his family and friends.

When the ridiculous charges of anti-Semitism have finally passed, two questions will have to be asked. First, why was the attack on Gibson so pro-longed, so vicious, so multifaceted? Second, why did none of the liberal crowd who joined in the public hounding of Gibson ever concern themselves with his artistic freedom?

It was not that long ago when Andres Serrano was dipping a crucifix in urine to the delight of the New York Times and the anti-Catholic elites of the art world. Catholics who were offended at such vulgarity on display in an exhibit funded by public dollars were accused of censorship and the Philistine refusal of artistic license. Indeed it has been a virtual calling card of the left to place unflattering portrayals of Christianity in the arts beyond criticism. How, they ask, can the imagination of the artist be measured by the traditional religious creeds?

But what happens when an artist puts the central fact of the creed—”He suffered, died, and was buried”—on a movie screen? Apparently, concern for Gibson’s freedom as an artist no longer applies. When a major movie star employs all his talent and celebrity to put a conventional Passion play on film, everyone from seminary professors to movie critics and liberal pundits forget their defense of film director Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ a generation ago.

Once we acknowledge that the intelligentsia defends anything religiously heterodox, it then becomes apparent why Gibson’s film has drawn so much heavy fire. It’s perfectly fine if the meaning of Christianity is seen through the humanist vision of a Martin Scorcese or a Martin Sheen. Soon we’ll have a film version of The Da Vinci Code with its preposterous thesis about the marriage of Jesus to Mary Magdalene and about which liberal scholars and critics will say nothing.

But a film about Jesus Christ by Mel Gibson simply cannot be allowed. First, he’s a genuine celebrity, a mega-star whose film will be influential for that very fact. Second, he really believes Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that his death was not simply an example of love for his fellow man but the redemption of humankind. Third, as witnessed in Braveheart, Gibson is capable of making a classic film sure to be admired as long as film endures.

All this adds up to a movie that will be a powerful witness to the truth of traditional Christianity, precisely the force that liberal elites have been trying to still for decades. It’s Christianity—and especially orthodox Catholicism and evangelicalism—that denies them their total victory in the culture wars. Proponents of abortion, gay marriage, radical feminism, multiculturalism, and postmodernism all harbor a deep fear of the truth claims of Christianity about the fixed nature of God’s creation.

Gibson surely knew that making a film about Christ was scandalous to the unbelievers in Hollywood, but I doubt if he realized the threat it represents to the intellectuals who employ a neutered Christianity for their own ideological enterprises.

One final word on the question of anti-Semitism (an ugly and destructive force both here and in Europe): It’s possible that some bigots may have their prejudice reinforced by Gibson’s film. But that doesn’t make the movie anti-Semitic, nor does it justify the attacks on Gibson. Films are released every week that exacerbate the sick tendencies of child molesters, rapists, murderers, and Rambo wannabes. We can’t censor ourselves just because some nut somewhere may be influenced negatively by our work.

I thank Mel Gibson for his film and for all he was willing to endure in making his faith public. His life and career will never be the same—would it were that more men had such courage.

Addendum: Subsequent events in Mel Gibson’s life did reveal his anti-Semitism. His film, however, does not, in my opinion, express an anti-Semitic point of view, an opinion I am prepared to defend as I have in the past (June, 2016).

Published in Crisis Magazine, March 1, 2004

Bad Times in Nazareth

By Deal W. Hudson

The angel Gabriel announced the birth of Christ at a town called Nazareth. Most people know that—it could be a $4,000 question on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

What most people don’t know is that the largest church in the Middle East stands at the site: the Basilica of the Annunciation. Within a few feet of that sacred site, Islamic extremists are trying to build a mosque with the support of the Israeli government.

Nazareth is an epicenter of Arab power in Israel: 20 percent of Israel’s population is Arab and mostly Muslim. An extremist Muslim party called the Islamic Movement began controlling the city council in 1999. That’s when the trouble started.

In preparation for the thousands of millennium pilgrims, the Christian mayor of Nazareth, Ramez Jerayseh, began building a plaza in front of the basilica. To create more open space, a small and unused Muslim school was knocked down, which led to an Islamic backlash and a movement to build a large mosque next to the basilica.

There is no religious justification for this structure a mosque already exists at the site along with several others throughout the small city. The attempt to build this one amounts to nothing less than an act of religious intimidation against Christians.

Astoundingly enough, the Israeli government gave permission for the cornerstone to be laid in November 1999. Exactly why is something of a mystery. Some have suggested that the Israelis are cynically manufacturing a conflict between Christians and Muslims (a conflict that would tip the Christian West more favorably toward Israel). Whatever the reason, the construction was moving forward until international pressure brought it to a halt on January 10.

Pope John Paul II almost canceled his 2000 visit in protest. President George W. Bush put the Nazareth mosque on the table during his March 2001 meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Dozens of religious leaders—including Yasser Arafat and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith—have issued protests against the building, and an International Coalition for Nazareth has been formed.

Israel’s political leaders are obviously pondering the cost of all this. On the one hand, they want to appease the Arab electorate by supporting the Nazareth mosque. On the other, they know the possible fallout among Christians in the United States—especially evangelicals. Visits to the Holy Land have enormous significance for all Christians, but for evangelical Protestants, who have no other pilgrimage sites, the Holy Land is it.

Tourism to Israel was down 55 percent in 2001 due to the fear of terrorism. Anger over the Nazareth mosque will not help. Perhaps the Israeli cabinet will wisely follow through with plans to find an alternate site for the new mosque. Moshe Fox, the minister of Public and Interreligious Affairs of the Israeli Embassy, told me that a committee assigned to look for an alternate site has not yet found one.

Meanwhile, the government is reaching out directly to its evangelical tourist base. On January 26, the Washington Post published an article describing how Israel’s U.S. embassy is promoting tourism to the Holy Land. They’re willing to pay for 30 top evangelicals to visit Israel and endorse tourism there. On the list are Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, John Hagee, Tim LaHaye, and Janet Parshall.

In addition, there’ll be “Israel Solidarity Days” in 100 cities from February to March where evangelical leaders will urge their brethren to visit Israel for a “solidarity visit.”

It would be an awkward situation, at best, for Americans to enjoy the Holy Land on Israel’s dime when the government is allowing (or possibly encouraging) extremist Muslims to intimidate Christians and create hostility and division in a historically peaceful city.

In the meantime, Israel will be sending a letter to the 100,000 largest evangelical churches and a postcard to 350,000 others urging their members to visit Israel.

It would be nice if the Israeli government received 450,000 letters saying, “Our deepest wish is to visit the land where our Lord Jesus was born, lived, died, and was resurrected. And when we visit the sacred city of Nazareth, where Mary heard the voice of the angel Gabriel, please make sure we can do so without hostility or hindrance. A place of worship and prayer should not be transformed into a political weapon.”

Imagine the response to that.

Published in Crisis Magazine, March 1, 2002

My New Year’s Wish for President Obama

Deal W. Hudson
Published December 27, 2010

At a restaurant in Jerusalem last August, I listened incredulously as two prominent Israeli journalists explained to me that President Obama did not care about a second term. Obama, they told me, was going to forge ahead toward an Israeli-Palestinian agreement with total disregard for any political fallout. It was Obama’s nature, they each asserted, to put his ideals ahead of pragmatism, and the two-state solution was going to be the greatest achievement of his first – and only – term in office.

I disagreed, and I told them so. President Obama, like every first-term president, doesn’t want to vacate the Oval Office wearing the sad smile of a leader rejected by his nation. If any character trait of Obama is obvious, it is his ambition. Such men rarely put a cause ahead of a career.

These Israeli journalists must have been scratching their heads lately watching the president’s so-called “move to the middle” during the lame-duck session of Congress. Obama’s compromise on the Bush-era tax rates was the gesture of a politician who did not want to suffer the same fate in 2012 that many fellow Democrats underwent last November.

President Obama is a man who wants, badly, to be reelected, and who can blame him? For his effort, he is now viewed as belonging to neither the Left nor the Right. Conservatives will always see him as a committed leftist, no matter how deftly he scrambles to preserve his office, and many liberals now call him a traitor.

But I also explained to the journalists that I applauded Obama’s initiative in bringing Israel and Palestine to the negotiating table. During that week in late summer, politicians in both Ramallah and Jerusalem were whispering stories about the United States’ “strong-arm” tactics in setting a course toward negotiations.

Yet the failure of those negotiations thus far is not due to Obama’s pragmatism but a brashness not usually suited to foreign affairs. To link the entire negotiating process to a freeze on the building of settlements in East Jerusalem appeared to be a miscalculation of Obama’s from the start.

The question of Israeli settlements on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem involves too many highly inflammatory variables and put Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an impossible situation. Netanyahu was willing to pay a political price for joining another round of negotiations, but the U.S. insistence on a settlement freeze of indeterminate length insured the window would stay open only a short length of time. By late November, negotiations were being described as “deadlocked,” with each side blaming the other for the breakdown.

Still, there are signs that at least some Israeli and Palestinian leaders are anxious to return to the table. At a weekly cabinet meeting on December 26, Trade MinisterBen-Eliezer urged the Israeli government to get back to negotiations, “even if it costs us a settlement freeze for a few months.” Ben-Eliezer, a senior labor minister, went even further in stressing the need for more Israeli initiatives:

I wouldn’t be surprised if within one year the whole world supports a Palestinian state, including the United States. Then we’ll ask where we were and what we were doing.

The article in Haaretz points out that five Latin American countries have already recognized Palestinian statehood; more seriously, a resolution condemning Israeli settlements, drafted by the Palestinian Authority and unnamed Arab countries, has been circulated to members of the United Nations Security Council.

A copy of the resolution, obtained by Haaretz, states that “Israeli actions in constructing settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, are illegal and are the main obstacle to peace on the basis of a two-state solution.”

The members of the UN Security Council, with the exception of the United States, favor the resolution, which also “condemns all actions by Israel to change the demographic component, character and status of the territories.” A vote on the resolution will likely take place in January when the United States is replaced as the president of the security council by Bosnia and Herzegovina. America will be standing alone if it vetoes the resolution. Whether the Palestinian resolution passes the UN Security Council or not, it will have the effect of further uniting world opinion behind the Palestinian cause of achieving statehood.

Ben-Eliezer is pointing out the obvious: Support for the continuation of the Israeli occupation is waning. Keeping the status quo will only further isolate Israel and isolate its major ally, the United States. A few days prior to the comments of Ben-Eliezer to the cabinet, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, in a rare television interview, told Israel’s Channel 2, “We should not give up,” and he thought it was “possible to get this process to move forward.”

A few days later, Prime Minister Netanyahu reiterated his support for continued negotiations in a speech to Jewish activists: “The quest for peace is important, and my government shall continue to move toward this goal. We want peace, because we don’t want war.”

The stage is set for Obama to reengage the process. During the lame-duck session of Congress, President Obama displayed a remarkable flexibility in dealing with the aftermath of the midterm elections. My New Year’s wish is that he will apply those same skills to reinvigorating the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, making it his number one priority in foreign policy for the second half of his presidency. Obama can leverage the threat of the UN resolution condemning Israeli settlements, as well as the likelihood of a U.S. veto, in pursuit of a new middle ground on the settlement freeze that brings both Palestine and Israel back to negotiations.

As yet, none of his political achievements has earned President Obama the appellation of “statesman,” but the pressing need for the two-state solution is his opportunity to earn respect even from those who abhor his domestic policy.

Christian Zionism, Evangelicals, and Israel

Deal W. Hudson
Published April 30, 2009

Rev. Stephen Sizer probably knows more about Christian Zionism than anyone in the world. At least, it seemed that way as we sat in the coffee shop at a Border’s bookstore in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Reverend Sizer has been an Anglican priest for 30 years, serving a parish in the UK with the quaint name of Christ Church Virginia Water.

Two of Reverend Sizer’s books, Christian Zionism (2004) and Zion’s Christian Soldiers (2007) are considered indispensible for understanding the steadfast support of U.S. Evangelicals for Israel. On the last leg of a speaking tour, Reverend Sizer was gracious enough to speak with me about the reasons why Evangelicals have become such a strong political lobby for Israel.

Reverend Sizer started the story with the “Six-Day War” of 1967, when Israel took occupation of East Jerusalem, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Gaza strip. “Many leading Evangelicals, such as L. Nelson Bell, the father-in-law of Billy Graham, welcomed that war as a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy,” he said. In Christianity Today, Bell wrote, “That for the first time in more than 2,000 years Jerusalem is now completely in the hands of the Jews, gives the student of the Bible a thrill and a renewed faith in the accuracy and validity of the Bible.”

Israeli politicians, Reverend Sizer went on, seeing the opportunity for strengthening U.S. support, started courting leading Evangelicals like Jerry Falwell, Pat Boone, Anita Bryant, and Pat Robertson. Out of gratitude for his public support, the Israeli government gave Falwell the gift of a Lear jet for his personal travel. And with the election of the Evangelical Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Ronald Reagan in 1980, the strong pro-Israel stand found its way into the White House.

The 1967 war was followed in 1970 by Billy Graham’s feature-length film His Land and the publication of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, the best-known apologia of Christian Zionism. The following year, Dr. Carl F. H. Henry organized the Jerusalem Conference of Biblical Prophecy, attended by 1,500 delegates from 52 nations. Welcomed by Prime Minister Ben Gurion, many of the speakers proclaimed that Israeli control over Jerusalem was an irrefutable sign that God’s final “dispensation” had begun. For Reverend Sizer, the theology of “dispensationalism” among Evangelicals is what best explains the rise in Evangelical support for Israel since the 1967 war. (Dispensationalist theology is taught in the notes of the highly influential Scofield Reference Bible, first published in 1909.)

Dispensationalism comes in various forms, but the common thread is a division of biblical history into discreet “dispensations,” culminating in a final dispensation through which God will deal directly with the Jews when Israel has been reestablished. The Church, in other words, is distinguished from Israel, which is responding to a distinctive set of God’s promises. Reverend Sizer summarized it this way: “God has a separate plan for the Jews – there are two covenants, two people, and two faiths.”

Since Christ will not come to earth to establish His kingdom, and the Jews cannot be saved, Israel must be allowed to settle on the land given to the Jews by God. According to Reverend Sizer, this is the reason Evangelicals not only support the settlements on the West Bank but also help to finance them. Reverend Sizer thinks part of the reason President Carter lost the support of Evangelicals was because he began to vacillate on the settlements.

Reverend Sizer went on to explain that there were, of course, historical forces at work in forging the relationship between the United States and Israel. Until 1980, the world was split into two factions, communism and democracy, and “Israel was seen as the bastion of democracy in the Middle East, as our friend. As communism declined, Islam became the enemy, and the U.S. once again needed Israel on its side.”

Reverend Sizer disagrees with the dispensationalist view of Biblical history, as you discover in Zion’s Christian Soldiers, but he is not interested in waging a theological war with America’s Evangelical community. A gentle man with a ready smile, he wants to meet with Evangelical leaders, so that “we can all be made more aware of our working assumptions.” When I got together with him, Reverend Sizer had just spoken with a group of several hundred Evangelicals in South Carolina. “It was a delightful meeting, no one got exercised – it was a constructive conversation.”

Most Catholics live in a world well apart from discussions of dispensationalism, the Second Coming, and the role of Israel in the final days. But, as I learned from Reverend Sizer, these are not merely in-house theological concerns belonging to our Evangelical brethren; they are assumptions that have had – and will have – a powerful influence on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and especially in negotiations between Israel and Palestine.

A two-state solution means, from the dispensationalist viewpoint, that Israel would be denied its existence on all the land bestowed by God. That’s why Pat Robertson protested so strongly against Ariel Sharon’s removal of the settlements from the Gaza strip, and later said Sharon’s subsequent coma and death were the result of God’s wrath. Robertson’s outburst was unseemly and disturbed the Israelis, but it was evidence of the deeply held convictions in the Evangelical community that Israel must never give up any of the land gained in the 1967 war.

Remember the Palestinians

Deal W. Hudson
Published May 3, 2010

The Holy Land is a place of stories. Everyone has a story about Israel and the occupied territory called Palestine by those who live there. Many of the events are drenched in blood – often that of relatives present or past – which is why, when story is pitted against story, death against death, little progress is ever made.

Even visitors have their stories – not about death but about their encounters with Palestinians and Israelis, who sadly become the occupied and the occupier when you arrive there. For the past 43 years, Israel has exercised a military occupation over much of what we call the Holy Land. When visitors take the time to learn about the lives on both sides of the walls, barriers, fences, roads, and settlements that now separate the peoples, their stories will change – just as mine did.

Like most Americans, when I went to the Holy Land for the first time in 2004, I considered Israel our best friend, ally, and the only democratic nation in the Middle East. And, as a Christian, I’ve always felt a special affinity with the Jews; the horrors of the Holocaust were enough for me to justify the re-founding of the nation of Israel after World War II.

I still believe all these things, but without the naïveté that tells the story as if it were the ‘good guys versus bad guys.’ There are no white hats here, except for those mostly unknown individuals on both sides who refuse to yield to the hate that pits “Arab” vs. “Jew.”

I’ve been to the Holy Land four times in the past six years. I’m certainly no expert, though much of my time there was spent talking to those who were, including Israeli generals, journalists, rabbis, activists, and members of the government. On the Palestinian side, I’ve met with the present president and prime minister, members of the Palestinian administration, mayors of towns on the West Bank, priests, and activists. I’ve also had the privilege each visit of meeting with the patriarch, the papal nuncio, and the head of the Franciscan Custos. (On two of my trips, I was also blessed to have the late Robert Novak and his wife Geraldine in my small group.)

Most Americans know very little about Israel, apart from the typical boosterism they read and hear in the media, and those who go on tours are usually kept away from the occupied territory. Thus, the average American knows even less about life among the Christians and Muslims in the occupied territory called Palestine, a land encompassing places like West Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jericho, Hebron, Nablus, Ramallah, and, of course, the rubble-strewn Gaza strip.

Israel has occupied this territory since the Six-Day War in 1967. It withdrew from the Sinai in 1982 as part of the 1979 peace agreement with Egypt, and technically withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but it remains the de facto occupying power by virtue of its military lockdown of Gaza’s borders. A limited degree of rule was granted to the Palestinian National Authority over the occupied territories in 1994 by the Oslo Accords.

As I consider how my attitude toward the Israel-Palestine conflict changed, the reasons all arise from the fact that Palestinian lives and property are completely subject to the designs of the Israeli government and the force of the Israeli military. There is no rule of law in the occupied territory – men and women are taken into custody in the middle of the night, houses and land are confiscated, centuries-old olive groves are cut to the ground.

Slowly, little by little, the fabric of life – knit over centuries in these cities and villages – is being torn apart. When they’re old enough, the children leave for other parts of the world, and their parents don’t blame them. Business and agriculture suffer, especially as the water resources are gobbled up by the burgeoning Israeli settlements, and the freedom of movement is increasingly restricted.

During Holy Week in 2004, I saw how the Israeli tractors dug huge trenches along the Mount of Olives to build their “safety fence.” The fact that this property belonged to convents, monasteries, and Catholic schools didn’t matter – one sister who objected to the unannounced early morning digging on convent property was told to “get back inside” with a gun pointed in her face.

If any kind of solution is to be found, Israel must respect all people’s rights, including Christians, Muslims, and Jews. This is no zero-sum game; there will be two winners or two losers.

The respect for rights needs to be observed even in the face of danger, such as the rocket bombings of Sderot that led to Israel launching daily bombing attacks on Gaza from December 27, 2009, to January 18. Yes, the citizens of Sderot had every right to be protected, but at the cost of 762 Palestinian non-combatants’ lives, including over 300 children? This was the nadir of the United States’ hands-off attitude toward Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

Israel has legitimate security interests – the wave of suicide bombings that led to the 2002 Intifada fundamentally changed the relationship with Palestine. But some of Israel’s “security” initiatives – like the barrier around Bethlehem – seem to be more about stealing land for settlements.

The fact is, there will be no peace in the Holy Land until the occupation ends. The chances of this have gotten worse rather than better since my first visit. Not only are Israel and Palestine at an impasse, they are approaching another boiling point.

Many Israelis believe it’s in their best interest to seek a two-state solution and end the occupation, and many Palestinians know that further radicalization of Islam will only ensure the occupation will last for years to come. Therein lies the only hope the region really has – that new leadership will emerge on both sides, tired of the conflict and ready to put aside old stories of violence and loss in favor of something new.

Give the Two-State Solution Another Look

Deal Hudson
Published August 30, 2010

Direct peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine will resume on September 2 in Washington, D.C. The announcement of the talks has been greeted with a polite but skeptical nod from the media and a rolling of the eyes from experts in the realpolitik of international affairs.

The assumption behind these dismissals is that peace talks have become ritualized face-saving gestures for all parties concerned – Israel, Palestine, and the United States – but serve as no more than a way of maintaining the status quo in the Middle East.

No doubt that all three countries have political factions that would strongly oppose any agreement containing concessions that, in their eyes, gave away too much or too little in land, water, or political autonomy.

In other words, the received wisdom on the state of play between Israel and Palestine is that a standoff exists, and the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is going to continue far into the future. The standoff suits not only Israel and Palestine but the other Muslim countries of the Middle East who, for reasons of their own self-interest, have distanced themselves from the Palestinians.

The facts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are easily arranged to fit this scenario: Too much history, and too much blood, creating too many ideologically aligned factions always ready to fight rather than seek a solution through compromise.

During time spent in the region over the past six years, I’ve met enough people of goodwill, on both sides, to have some hope that the political deadlock will one day be broken, a two-state solution will be found, and both Israelis and Palestinians will be freed from the militarized, interlocking existence they have been living since 1967.

Israelis are increasingly concerned about the impact on their national character of maintaining the occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. Generations of Israeli men and women have fulfilled their required military service at checkpoints, security barriers, and through the various uprisings (intifadas). Israelis are asking whether this service is coarsening their moral outlook, encouraging an oppressor mentality. The bombardment and invasion of Gaza at the end of 2008 cost Israel’s international standing dearly. Zionist immigration has been steadily dropping since 2000 – perhaps due to the perception by the world’s Jews that Israel has been made a less than desirable place to live.

Palestinians, especially those in walled cities like Bethlehem, have children who have never seen the Mediterranean Sea that lies only a few miles to the east. Unable to secure travel visas, they have lost touch with relatives who live only a few miles away, on the other side of the local barrier and checkpoint. The economy has become increasingly dependent on foreign aid, since business can hardly prosper where every road is blocked with a checkpoint that may or may not be open when you get there, and if you can obtain a visa.

Palestinian young people, especially those who travel abroad for college, are choosing to live elsewhere. The decline in the Christian presence on the West Bank has much less to do with Muslim hostility than loss of economic opportunity.

In a meeting with a retired Israeli general a few weeks ago in Tel Aviv, I asked him whether a two-state solution was still possible, given the fact that Israel would lose its military presence in a land where terrorists have vowed its destruction. His answered surprised me, along with all those in the room: “The time will never be perfect for negotiations, so we must do something now, and figure out how to make it work.”

The general’s attitude is echoed by many of the leaders I’ve talked to in recent years from both Israel and Palestine. But this leadership will have to figure out a way to control or neutralize their countrymen who would rather take up arms than give up any land or settlements. However, there are also many who simply want to end the madness.

Both sides have agreed to a one-year deadline to resolve the basic issues in the way of an agreement. The issues are many, but the most contentious include the drawing of borders, the status of Jerusalem, the Palestine military, the Jewish settlers – now numbering 500,000 on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem – and the “right of return.” The last of these, I am told, could be the deal-breaker, but a modest compromise solution has been floated that might satisfy both President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu (but could cause them both complications at home).

It’s been widely reported that the United States used its muscle bringing about these talks and marked “a rare success for U.S. diplomacy in the region.” The presence of Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, and King Abdullah of Jordan, also invited to the talks, will provide the opportunity to gather much-needed regional support for any progress made during initial negotiations.

There are many wild cards that could end the negotiations abruptly, not the least of which is a newly nuclearized Iran. Thus far, Israel has not sent its air force – perhaps the best in the world – to take out Iran’s nuclear reactor, as many expected. Perhaps this is a sign that Netanyahu is willing to give the peace talks a chance. Abbas, it can be hoped, appreciates Israel’s restraint and will arrive on September 2 determined to take advantage of what may be the last chance for a Palestinian state.

Why the Pope Should Visit Gaza

Deal W. Hudson
Published April 13, 2009

In interviews conducted with over twenty Palestinian Christian leaders last week, I was surprised to discover no enthusiasm whatsoever for the upcoming papal visit. “The pope’s visit here will only legitimize the recent Israeli operation in Gaza and the intentions of the right-wing government elected in February,” the professor explained.

Palestinian Christians have expressed their concerns directly to Benedict. In a little-noticed letter of February 20, 40 members of the Christian community in the Holy Land told the pope his visit would only serve to endorse Israeli government policies, “leading to more cooperation from the United States and Europe.”

Nidal Abu Zuluf is associate director of the YMCA in Bethlehem and coordinates a network of Christian organizations. As he gave me a copy of the letter, he asked, “Why now? It’s a bad time for the pope to come, and there is no clear message, unless he goes to Gaza.”

From what I saw and heard there, adding Gaza to the papal visit to the Holy Land would indeed send a message to all concerned, including Hamas, which some Christians fear was strengthened by the three-week Israeli offensive. Benedict could visit Holy Family Parish in Gaza City, where Msgr. Manuel Musallam and his parishioners lived through the bombing that began on December 28 and the ground invasion a week later on January 3, 2009. Monsignor Musallam and his parish minister to the 200 Catholics remaining in Gaza (there are approximately another 3,000 Christians, most of whom are Greek Orthodox).

Unfortunately, the itinerary of the trip, set for May 8-13, does not include Gaza — it basically repeats the schedule of Pope John Paul II from March 2000. Benedict arrives in Amman, Jordan, before visiting Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth. The problem, according to Abu Zuluf, is that the Holy Land is a “very different place” than it was in 2000. Ever since the uprising (Second Intifada) that followed the visit of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount in September 2000, the West Bank has been in a state of lock-down enforced by hundreds of miles of security walls, checkpoints, settlements, settler roads, and harsh restrictions on freedom of movement.
Palestinian Christians have virtually no access to the holy sites in East Jerusalem, Galilee, and Nazareth. Abu Zuluf, a native of Bethlehem, has not been able to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem since 1993, even though it is just a few miles away. Sadly, his situation is typical for Christians in Bethlehem and the adjacent, largely Christian cities of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour.

According to Br. Jack Curran, vice president for development of Bethlehem University, students in religion classes are routinely denied permits to travel out of the city. Even worse, he told me, “We can’t get permission from Israel for any students to attend the university from Gaza.” In spite of the government obstacles, Bethlehem University has mounted a new effort to engage students from Gaza. Brother Curran told me, “The university needs help from American Catholics both politically, to get Israeli permission for these young people to come to Bethlehem, and financially, to support their living and educational costs.”

The Christians living in the Holy Land will view Benedict’s visit through the lens of the recent Israeli offensive, which left 1,417 dead in Gaza, including 313 children. With the election of Benjamin Netanyahu, Christians in Bethlehem expressed fear that their city could become another Gaza. “We already live surrounded by walls and checkpoints. Why shouldn’t we think that what happened in Gaza could happen to us?” said a young woman in her mid-20s, who comes from one of the oldest and most prominent Christian families in Bethlehem.

Palestinian Christians will be deeply disappointed and demoralized if Benedict simply repeats the itinerary of John Paul II. Imagine the power of the Holy Father speaking from a Catholic parish in the midst of the devastation of Gaza. Benedict could not only speak to the issue of the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, but could also issue an invitation to Catholics around the world to follow his example and visit the Holy Land.

A significant and lasting increase in Catholic pilgrims would provide financial help for both Israel and Palestine, moral support for Palestinian Christians, and an opportunity for Catholics to see the situation on the ground for themselves. The Palestinian Christian community is on life support, and the pope cannot ignore it.