The passing of the Pope pains us all, Jews, Muslims and Christians alike, as he was a voice of peace and reconciliation for all faiths throughout the world.
I think that in particular, Palestinians will miss him more than most other people. The reason is that the Pope continuously sought for peace in the Holy Land, and he sought this peace not by demanding that the Palestinians die quietly, but on the basis of dignity, freedom and justice for all.
During his pilgrimage to Palestine in 2000, the Pope conducted the first papal visit ever to a Palestinian refugee camp. He started his speech in the Dheisheh camp by stating “Throughout my pontificate I have felt close to the Palestinian people in their sufferings”. The refugees greeted him warmly, with written placards of the towns and villages they were ethnically cleansed from in 1948. He alluded to their right of return to their homes when he referred to the “justice” to which they have an “inalienable right”. Issam Sharee remembers it as an exciting day and said "He told us in his speech that he would help us, and I think he did," Sharee said. "He said he believed in us."
Prior to the camp visit, Pope John Paul II held a two-hour Mass in Manger Square in front of the Basilica of the Nativity, revered as the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Here he said: “Peace for the Palestinian people! Peace for all the peoples of the region! No one can ignore how much the Palestinian people have had to suffer in recent decades. Your torment is before the eyes of the world. And it has gone on too long.” Further, “Only with a just and lasting peace, not imposed but secured through negotiation, will legitimate Palestinian aspirations be fulfilled.”
Two years later, the Israeli occupation army would deploy in Manger Square, lay siege to the Church of the Nativity, declare the birthplace of Jesus a "closed military zone" and restrict Bethlehemites’ local movements.
In a NY Times report on April 4, 2002 the Vatican then sharply criticized Israel for imposing "unjust and humiliating conditions" on the Palestinians, and a few days later on April 8th, the Vatican had issued a stern warning to Israel to respect religious sites in line with its international obligations (BBC Report : Vatican outrage over Church Siege, 4/8/2002).
There’s never been a world leading figure with a following like that of the Pope, which so clearly and succinctly acknowledged the rights of the Palestinians. It is no wonder then, that the Holy Father, may his soul rest in peace, was considered a great friend to the cause of Palestine.
Today, Palestinian Christians and Muslims alike continue to live under illegal Israeli occupation, and in a constant state of siege, with the apartheid wall imprisoning them in ghetto-like camps. As a result of this, many Christians in the vicinity of East Jerusalem, Abu-Dis and Al-Izzariyeh aren’t allowed to congregate to church. The Santa Marta monastery, located at the biblical home of sisters Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus, is one such example which houses the St. Martha church, now empty. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has said that the wall is dividing communities, complicating the peace process and unfairly taking land from churches; a sentiment echoed by the Holy Land Christian Society.
Yet despite all this, the most tragic event in the Holy Land today is the theft of childhood in all its’ joys, dreams and unbridled innocence.
An article appearing April 3rd , 2005 in the British Guardian, described Palestinian children suffering from anxiety, nightmares and flashbacks of violent events. In some areas, the majority of children had acute post-traumatic stress disorder. These children became traumatized by shooting, night raids and home demolitions, in addition to other factors they’d experience or encounter. This has devastating long-term effects on emotion, learning and behavior. One cannot help but remember the words of Jesus here: “Suffer the little children to come to me; forbid them not; for of such is the kingdom of God.”
The reports of daily abuses against the Palestinians continue to emanate from Israeli and international human rights groups, as President Bush and the Evangelical right-wing continue their blind support for Israel’s barbaric acts. It is here that one remembers more words of Christ: “Blessed are the peacemakers”. Pope John Paul was one who the world will not forget.
Notes:. Baltimore Sun, April 3, 2005, Visiting the Holy Land with a ‘jubilee pilgrimage’ by Peter Hermann.
http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/obituaries/bal- te.middleeast03apr03,1,1843406.story?coll=bal- news-obituaries&ctrack=3&cset=true. Vatican Aims Sharp Rebuke At ‘Reprisals’ By Israelis, by Alan Riding . Piece titled “Indifferent to death: tragedy of the traumatized children of the Intifada”, by Sandra Jordan.