Today Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Israel for a state visit which was always going to be fraught with opportunities to embarrass and be embarrassed; after all, His Holiness served in the Hitler Youth and the Wehrmacht, albeit briefly, albeit when he was very young and almost certainly against his will. Indeed, he actually deserted from the Wehrmact in the last days.

More recently he agreed to the rehabilitation of Levebrian priests including Bishop Richard Williamson, a British bishop who believes the Holocaust, one of the most documented events in human history, may have been exaggerated.

“I believe that the historical evidence is strongly against, is hugely against six million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler”

 “I think that 200,000 to 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps, but none of them in gas chambers”

This in an interview on Swedish television. Williamson, then went off to a dinner party with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and David Irving.

The Pope was also in hot water because, true to his conservative type, has issued a Motu Proprio authorising wider use of the Latin or Tridentine Mass that includes the Good Friday prayer for the conversion of the Jews.

If all this wasn’t enough, he has also begun the process of beatification of his predecessor pope Pius XII whom the Jews and many others believe did not do enough to protest the treatment of Europe’s Jews during the Holocaust and, although he dropped some strong hints, never actually publicly condemned the Nazis or the their anti-Semitic policies. In an effort to counter these claims the Vatican has, belatedly, published a number of documents showing how Pius XII, working behind the scenes, did much to help the Jews during this period. History may have to make some revisions with respect to the silence of Pius but it is unlikely to overturn history’s judgement.

So His Holiness arrives with three strikes already against him in his dealing with Jews and, therefore, the State of Israel. He had some serious fences to mend, banana skims to avoid and tightropes to walk.

With regard to Islam he wasn’t doing too well either having quoted the following:

Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.

Oh dear. Has anyone ever issued a fatwa against a Pope?

However, he was quoting from an obscure 14th century emperor, Manuel II Paleologus. I shan’t attempt to go into the deep theological content of this lecture, at Regensburg University in 2006, but suffice it say he upset a lot of Muslims. There was a clear lack of understanding of what a Pope should be saying about other religions even if he is quoting as part of a much wider discussion. He apologised afterwards but the genie was out of the bottle, as it were.

So it must have been with some trepidation that he set foot in the Holy Land, first visiting Jordan and today arriving in Israel where he found himself in Jerusalem at the Notre Dame Jerusalem Centre with Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen and Sheikh Taysir al Tamimi who is a cleric and also a jurist as well as been a fierce Palestinian patriot.

The Sheikh is on the board of OneVoice, whose website describes itself as: 

… an international mainstream grassroots movement with over 650,000 signatories in roughly equal numbers both in Israel and in Palestine, and 2,000 highly-trained youth leaders. It aims to amplify the voice of Israeli and Palestinian moderates, empowering them to seize back the agenda for conflict resolution and demand that their leaders achieve a two-state solution guaranteeing the end of occupation, establishing a viable independent Palestinian state, and ensuring the safety and security of the state of Israel – allowing both people to live in peace with all their neighbors. 

A noble cause indeed. Please note: “It aims to amplify the voice of Israeli and Palestinian moderates..”

One would assume, therefore, that its Board members would be moderates and always act and behave in the spirit of the organisation they represent, even if not doing so officially.


The purpose of the meeting of Jerusalem’s three faith communities at the Notre Dame Centre was “inter-religious dialogue”, something, no doubt, that OneVoice would support.

In an unscheduled speech the Sheikh, board member of OneVoice, certainly took the opportunity to have his voice amplified. Speaking in Arabic, according to the Jerusalem Post:

accused Israel of murdering women and children in Gaza and making Palestinians refugees, and declared Jerusalem the eternal Palestinian capital. 

Fine. The  Sheikh is entitled to air his views but it was certainly not in the spirit of the meeting or likely to further the causes of peace. 

The Pope shook his hand and walked out thus neatly ending his first high-wire sortie. His Press Officer, Father Federico Lombardi, then provided the safety net:

L’intevento dello sceicco Tayssir Attamimi non era previsto dagli organizzatori dell’incontro. In un evento dedicato al dialogo, tale intervento è stato una negazione del dialogo. Ci si augura che questo incidente non comprometta la missione del Papa diretta a promuovere la pace e il dialogo tra le religioni, come egli ha chiaramente affermato in molti discorsi  di questo viaggio. Ci si augura anche  che il dialogo interreligioso nella Terra Santa non venga compromesso da questo incidente.

(The intervention of Sheikh Tayssir Attamimi was not scheduled by the organizers of the meeting. In a meeting dedicated to dialogue this intervention was a direct negation of what a dialogue should be. We hope that such an incident will not damage the mission of the Pope aiming at promoting peace and also interreligious dialogue, as he has clearly affirmed in many occasions during this pilgrimage. We hope also that interreligious dialogue in the Holy Land will not be compromised by this incident.)

The Pope was clearly embarrassed by this but his reaction was dignified and appropriate. The Sheikh’s behaviour, whatever his conviction, was an insult to the Pope and opportunistic.

The Sheikh has form. He did a similar thing in the same place when Pope John Paul II visited in 2000. You would have thought they would be forewarned, but they could hardly not invite him. On that occasion the Sheikh was decidedly not speaking in the spirit of OneVoice as the JP points out:

Never referring to Israel by name, Tamimi had called on “the occupier” to stop “strangling Jerusalem and oppressing its residents.”

Singling out land confiscations, house demolitions, settlements and the Baruch Goldstein shooting in 1994, Tamimi said that Israel had a long record of “genocide” and “shooting and wounding Palestinian children.”

 This is verging on the rhetoric of Hamas with its lies about genocide and targeting of children.

But here’s the hypocrisy bit. Whilst Jews, Christians and Muslims, and indeed all religions, are allowed freedom of religious practice and access to their holy places in Israel, in Bethlehem, for example, which is under Palestinian Authority control, Christians, one time the majority, are being driven out by religious intolerance from Muslims.

In this JP article two years ago: 

A number of Christian families have finally decided to break their silence and talk openly about what they describe as Muslim persecution of the Christian minority in this city. 

The move comes as a result of increased attacks on Christians by Muslims over the past few months. The families said they wrote letters to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, the Vatican, Church leaders and European governments complaining about the attacks, but their appeals have fallen on deaf ears. 

According to the families, many Christians have long been afraid to complain in public about the campaign of “intimidation” for fear of retaliation by their Muslim neighbors and being branded “collaborators” with Israel. 

But following an increase in attacks on Christian-owned property in the city over the past few months, some Christians are no longer afraid to talk about the ultra-sensitive issue. And they are talking openly about leaving the city. 

But Arab propaganda says otherwise and blames, you guessed it, the Israelis. Here’s Al Jazeera:

Bethlehem’s mayor explains that the worsening conditions under the Israeli occupation are the main reasons for the “Christian exodus”.

Victor Batarseh says that the Christians are leaving because of the stress of occupation, the lack of jobs and worsening economic situation in the territories, the constant fear of war and military incursions and the continuous building of roadblocks and the wall.

“It is much easier for a Christian Palestinian to get a visa to a Western country than a Muslim Palestinian,” Batarseh said.

“So because it is easier they are able to leave.”

Yeah right. The Muslim Palestinians really find it hard to get to the West. According to Abbas Shiblak, The Palestinian Diaspora in Europe: Challenges of Dual Identity and Adaptation, (ISBN 9950-315-04-2) more than 10,000 Palestinians arrived in Britain alone in the 1990’s. It records, as of 2001, 191,000 Palestinians resident in Europe. 

Sadly, but predictably, most commentators take the Al Jazeera line, even the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, who just concedes that the plight of Christians is a result of occupation whilst ignoring the fact that Bethlehem is behind a barrier because 50 percent of all suicide bombers came from Bethlehem.

So when the Pope visits the remnants of the Christian community under the PA rule he might wish to take some of its leaders aside and ask them discreetly why Christians thrive in Israel free of persecution and intimidation but are frightened to speak under Muslim control in the West Bank and Gaza as their numbers dwindle.

For Sheikh Tamimi, board member of OneVoice, I would point out that it rubs both ways; you can’t just choose which “ethnic cleanser” to criticise, especially when your lot are at it big time. See for example this article in the JP in June 2007:

Christians living in Gaza City on Monday appealed to the international community to protect them against increased attacks by Muslim extremists. Many Christians said they were prepared to leave the Gaza Strip as soon as the border crossings are reopened.

The appeal came following a series of attacks on a Christian school and church in Gaza City over the past few days.

Father Manuel Musalam, leader of the small Latin community in the Gaza Strip, said masked gunmen torched and looted the Rosary Sisters School and the Latin Church.

“The masked gunmen used rocket-propelled grenades to storm the main entrances of the school and church,” he said. “Then they destroyed almost everything inside, including the Cross, the Holy Book, computers and other equipment.”

Musalam expressed outrage over the burning of copies of the Bible, noting that the gunmen destroyed all the Crosses inside the church and school. “Those who did these awful things have no respect for Christian-Muslim relations,” he said. 

There’s a pattern here somewhere. Oh yes. If Muslims persecute Christians, the Church says nothing. If Jews are in conflict with Muslims then EVERYONE feels free to have a go and condemn the Jews.

Inconsistency and hypocrisy is often (but not always) the currency of Israel’s detractors.

Meanwhile, His Holiness is preparing for his next hire-wire act.