In an unprecedented event in the past 600 years, Pope Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger Benedict XVI announced his retirement from the supreme prelate of the Roman Catholic Church. This historical situation invites the establishment of full and healthy Christian-Muslim relations. We still remember the negative reaction to Pope Benedict’s misguided comments about Islam and the Prophet Muhammad after his lecture at the University of Regensburg in Germany. This incident was one in a series of objectionable comments and opinions re-dating his papacy. There were records, for example, of then Cardinal Ratzinger openly opposing Turkey’s admission to the European Union, claiming that the Muslim country was incompatible with Europe’s “Christian” nature. Pope Benedict eventually softened this rough course and reopened channels of dialogue with the Muslim World. This was exemplified by his historic visit to Turkey and by showing solidarity with other world leaders’ voices in strongly opposing the war and military occupation in Iraq.
From a broad perspective, the inter-religious relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Islamic World under Pope Benedict XVI never reached the optimum levels achieved during Pope John Paul II’s papacy. Under the previous pontificate, John Paul II was able to establish, promulgate and practice positive and constructive inter-religious policies signifying the values of coexistence and respect. These guiding principles were eventually perpetuated in Second Vatican Council documents.
In light of Pope Benedict’s announcement of resignation, the Muslim World yearns for the emergence of a new Catholic leader ready to constructively approach the world’s population represented by all Catholics and their Muslims “cousins.” It longs for a strong and fearless voice within the church that advocates for justice: a much-needed voice demanding justice for hundreds of thousands of Arab Christians, along with the several million Muslims in the Holy Land of Palestine; a leader ready to plea that the Christians and Muslims in Palestine stop being treated as second class citizens and victims of the apartheid policies and practices continuously adopted by Israel. These Palestinians in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the West Bank continue to lose their land to the relentless systematized expansion of Jewish settlers, who unceasingly seize their lands under the protection and patronage of Israel. This reprehensible neo-colonization policy is a clear violation of international law and constitutes an unquestionable impediment to peace between Arabs and Israelis. The continued illegal settlement practices of Jewish settlers in Palestinian territory are under the control and dictates of the government of Israel. The impunity of these illegal practices perpetuates injustice and flies in the face of regional and global peace efforts. Palestinian Reverend Mitri Raheb, from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethlehem and author of Bethlehem Besieged: Stories of Hope in Times of Trouble, has documented true stories of the cruel oppression of Christians in the Holy Land.
Without doubt, the Palestinian-Israeli problem remains an unresolved issue for the new Pope, who shall fully adopt it as an essential part of his social justice agenda; an agenda diametrically opposed to that of Avigdor Lieberman, the former Israeli Foreign Minister, who recently stated: “I am saying clearly that it is impossible to reach a comprehensive agreement with the Palestinians. It is impossible to solve the conflict. It needs to be managed.” It is immoral to suggest continuing to manage the conflict for decades to come while illegal settlers continue stripping the Palestinian Christians and Muslims from their land. Fortunately, Lieberman is no longer acting Foreign Minister, as he resigned after being criminally charged with fraud and breach of trust. However, beware! Lieberman does not lose hope in being re-appointed by his friend Netanyahu. On the other hand, as a hopeful and honest counterbalance, it is worth mentioning that Israel’s outgoing deputy Foreign Minister, Danny Ayalon, said recently: “Israel should acknowledge Palestine as a full member of the UN. Israel will give sovereignty and independence to Palestinians and in return they will recognize Israel…”
Certainly, the incoming Pope should never lose focus on Christians in Palestine’s Holy Land, who suffer perpetually under Israeli occupation and experience untold oppression that defeats justice. We pray the incoming Pope will usher in the resurgence of sincere inter-religious dialogue and the dawn of a new era of peace-making, peace-building and coexistence befitting of the children of Abraham.
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