Journey through the Looking-glass: Pope Benedict XVI’s Interfaith Encounter in the Holy Land

One of the most interesting aspects of the Pope’s recent visit to Israel was the interfaith group that met with the Pope to discuss important issues and challenges that Jews, Christians and Muslims face as a faith community. Despite the good intentions of the forum’s organizers, the Pope’s desire to act as a facilitator for religious tolerance found some explosive road-blocks along the way, as they met at the holy site Norte Dame.

Following the pope’s visit to Yad Vashem, Palestinian leader Sheik Taysir Tamimi forced his way to the pulpit at an inter-religious event demanding that the pope to fight for “a just peace for a Palestinian state and for Israel to stop killing women and children and destroying mosques as she did in Gaza”; he asked the pope to “pressure the Israeli government to stop its aggression against the Palestinian people.”

Of course not a word was said about how these mosques were being used as military bases to attack Israeli citizens. Evidently, Tamimi doesn’t get what “Never Again” really means. Context is everything. But let us return back to our discussion.

Rather than confronting Sheik Taysir Tamimi, the Pope quietly listened and left the room. As one friend of mine wrote in his blog, “The biggest shame of it all is that the  entire Muslim community he represented was not even embarrassed by or ashamed of this verbal explosion.”

Yet, this was not the only place where Pope Benedict XVI found some difficulties. After he spoke at the Yad Vashem, the Pope proclaimed that he had come: “to stand in silence before this monument, erected to honor the memory of the millions of Jews killed in the horrific tragedy of the Shoah … ‘May the names of these victims never perish! May their suffering never be denied, belittled or forgotten!”

Rabbi Lau, the former Chief Ashkanzic Rabbi of Israel and holocaust survivor took center stage and said, “The Pope’s Speech was devoid of compassion …” Shaming any individual is wrong—especially when that individual happens to be the religious leader who represents over a billion Catholics worldwide!

If I were Rabbi Lau, I would examine my own behavior and ask myself: Couldn’t the criticisms have been made in a more personal and less public venue? On the other hand, the Vatican ought to be a little circumspect with his behavior as well. Rabbi Lau justifiably said that the Pope spoke in vague generalities about the victims of the Holocaust, and chose to use the word “millions” instead of the more specific “six million.” When referring to the Jewish victims, he referred to them as being “killed” rather than the more precise verb “murdered.” These are legitimate criticisms. That being said, I think Pope Benedict XVI’s next meeting will show a marked improvement in every respect.

Postscript: May 14th

If I were the Pope, I would look to the example of Pope John Paul II. One of the greatest qualities he showed was a capacity to personally relate with the people. Pope Benedict XVI, on the other hand, is a trained academic, who is more comfortable giving a lecture at a seminary or at a college. Pope John Paul II had a very charismatic ability and could relate to his audience with life anecdotes and the lessons he learned. When Pope John Paul II arrived at the Yad Vashem, his crucifix was made out of cast iron resembling the twisted barb-wired fences of the concentration camps; at the top of the crucifix stood an image of Jesus, intimating that he too was among those who suffered in the camps.  How could one not be deeply moved by such a powerful identification? With time, I hope Pope Benedict XVI acts more like his predecessor.