The Papal trip to Israel/Palestine

Does the Pope's trip matter?

TWO WALLS. All previous Popes have prayed at the Western Wall, (l) a conspicuous act of "atonement" for the past attitude of the Catholic Church toward Jews. But Pope Francis added another "wall" to his trip - the famous "separation barrier" (r). The graffiti on the wall at this spot reads "Bethelehem = Warsaw Ghetto".

All three previous Papal visits to the Holy Land have been primarily about “contrition” - reflecting the fact that the Catholic Church has been acutely aware of several centuries of its own Anti-semitism, culminating in the horrible events of the Holocaust.

On this trip, Pope Francis continued to show contrition – appropriately so. But in word and deed, he also dramatically indicated that the Church is starting to pay attention to another narrative of suffering - that of the Palestinians.

In addition to an unannounced stop to pray at the "separation wall", Pope Francis gave other signs of his concern: 


  • He arrived directly in Palestinian Territory from Jordan without stopping first in Israel (a first)

  • He referred in a speech to the "State of Palestine" (a first)

  • He had supper in a refugee camp with a several Palestinian Christians. (Apparently, one of the Palestinians knew Italian, so the Holy Father could talk directly to them without any intermediary)

  • He even offered to host a meeting of Israeli and Palestinian representatives at the Vatican (a first.)

Francis appeared to be announcing that he recognizes there are two narratives of oppression and injustice in the area, not just one.

Palestinians were obviously thrilled. Read here the blog post of one of the Palestinians who got to meet the Pope:

The Israelis were clearly unhappy. "Angry Israelis look to ‘get even’", read a title in the National Post, after the Pope's unannounced stop to pray at the separation barrier.

The Pope was greeted by thousands of Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, in Bethlehem. Later, according to the National Post, Pope Francis and PM Netanyahu even disagreed over Jesus maternal language. “Jesus was here, in this land. He spoke Hebrew,” Netanyahu apparently told the Pope at their meeting in Jerusalem. “Aramaic,” Francis corrected him, smiling. “He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew,” shot back a testy Netanyahu.

Implications for the struggle for Palestinian human rights here in Canada

"The change in tone from the Holy Father is likely to have a very gradual but significant ripple effect in Canada," notes Carl Hetu, Executive Director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Agency, (CNEWA), a papal agency located in Ottawa.

Nearly half of Canadians are baptized Catholic, and thousands of Canadian Catholics go to mass every week, where they hear a message from their local priest. Up to now, that message has been mainly about "atonement" and the rights of Jews in Israel. In light of the Pope's visit, that message is more likely to include the suffering of the Palestinians.

The shift in message will hasten an evolution that has been going on for some time. Well before the election of this Pope, many Canadian Catholics have been working to assist Palestinians (in particular Palestinian Christians), and bringing Palestinian issues to the attention of their church. 

Here are some examples of the work of Canadian Catholics in this area.

Trips to visit Israel/Palestine.  The Catholic Women's League has been leading trips to Israel/Palestine. The travel program is called “Velma’s Dream”, after Velma Harasen, an honorary life member of the Catholic Women’s League, who visited the Holy Land in 2010. She says her “eyes were opened to the struggles of local Christians”.

A Toronto priest, Father Robert Holmes has been running a another program - the "Basilian Peace and Justice Pilgrimage to the Holy Land" - for several years. Information about this year's tour, which combines his Christian faith and social justice, can be found here:

Support for Bethlehem University.  The Catholic Church in Canada is a supporter of Bethlehem University (BU), a Christian university in the West Bank. The small university was founded in 1973 by a Catholic order and now has about 3000 Palestinian students, more than 50% young women. It has both Muslim and Christian students. (It has no Jewish students because Israel has made BU off limits to young Israelis.)
To see a trailer about Bethlehem University see:

Urging the Federal Government to protect Palestinian Christians.  The highest Catholic body in Canada has taken up the defence of Palestinians whose lives are being damaged by ongoing construction of the Israeli separation barrier.

“As President of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), I write to express our concerns about the security wall in the Cremisan Valley which will cut off some 58 Christian families from their agricultural land and some 400 impoverished children from their school”, wrote The Most Reverend Paul-André Durocher, Archbishop of Gatineau and President of the CCCB, in a powerful letter to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird several months ago.

See the letter here:

Standing in solidarity with the United Church of Canada in the face of intimidation by the Israel Lobby. After the United Church passed its now-famous resolution on boycotting Israel, in August 2012, there was a concerted effort by the Israel lobby to pressure the other Christian churches in Canada to reject the United Church.  The Council for Israel and Jewish Affairs threatened to boycott all forums of Christian Jewish dialogue as long as the United Church was a participant.  The Catholic Church refused to go along with this divide and rule tactic. Christian-Jewish dialogue groups continue to meet across the country.

In Canada... the Pope still matters

“The Pope?”, Joseph Stalin is supposed to have asked Churchill and Roosevelt during a WWII allied summit, “How many divisions does he have?”

The Pope doesn’t have any military muscle. But the head of this very conservative institution has influence over millions of people, including hundreds of thousands of Canadians. A change in the Catholic Church’s attitude toward the Israel/Palestine issue is likely to have significant positive consequences in Canada for the recognition of human rights for Palestinians.


CORRECTION: Two weeks ago, I criticized Amnesty Canada for not circulating to its Canadian members a powerful letter from Amnesty International (and several other human rights organizations) urging PLO President Abbas to take Israel before the International Criminal Court. I was in error. Amnesty Canada did in fact put the letter on its website. MEA CULPA and bravo for Amnesty Canada!!

Peter Larson
National Education Committee on Israel/Palestine
National Council on Canada Arab Relations


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