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Pope Francis performs ‘balancing act’ of agendas on Middle East visit

May 26, 2014 at 6:20 PM EST
Juggling the political and religious rivalries between Israel and the Palestinians during his trip to the Middle East, Pope Francis called on Mahmoud Abbas and Shimon Peres to join him at the Vatican for prayer and reflection. Jeffrey Brown gets insight into how the Pope navigated his trip from Nicholas Casey of The Wall Street Journal, reporting from Jerusalem.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Nicholas Casey, is the Middle East correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and covered the pope’s trip. He joins us now from Jerusalem.

Nick, let me ask you first about the pope’s invitation to Mahmoud Abbas and Shimon Peres to come to Rome. How much of a surprise was that, and how is it being seen by people that you’re talking to there?

NICHOLAS CASEY, The Wall Street Journal: Well, it was a surprise to us, the reporters. Sources I have in both governments said that this was an idea that was floated beforehand.

Now, what’s happened diplomatically on the two sides is that they have both walked away from the table. This happened really acrimoniously last month. Neither side has been talking to each other since. So the pope realized this was the situation here and tried to get an olive branch circulating between both sides, which means that, some time next month, the presidents of the two countries are going to be meeting. It’s not clear what they’re going to be talking about, how much politics will be on the table.

Officially, this is a meeting of talking, reflection and prayer. But, hopefully, it will lead to some sort of revival of peace talks here eventually.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that invitation went to Mahmoud Abbas and Shimon Peres, not to Benjamin Netanyahu. So, does that make it seem — does that have implications? Does that make it more ceremonial, in a sense?

NICHOLAS CASEY: It does have big implications. And this is part of the reason why I think, as someone looking at the Middle East, this might not go very far.

Shimon Peres only has a little bit of time left until the beginning of the summer as the president of Israel. The presidency is a pretty ceremonial role. One thing to keep in mind is that these talks fell apart after months of mediation by John Kerry with Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas.

You have to ask, well, if the invitation is now going to the ceremonial president of Israel and Mahmoud Abbas with the pope, who has less leverage over Israel or the Palestinians than even the Americans did, where this goes from here and whether this has much of a chance, it might not.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so tell us a little bit about how the trip played out on the ground. It’s obviously a tense place. Were those tensions in the air? How was the pope received?

NICHOLAS CASEY: Well, it was received well.

It’s definitely a tense part of the world, but Francis is also a pope that can kind of relax tensions in places that he goes to. He’s also someone that has a lot of surprises. One of the important images that came out of the trip was him getting out of the popemobile and having a prayer in front of the separation barrier that divides Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

I was actually back in Bethlehem today trying to figure out how that stop took place and who actually was the one that wrote the graffiti that was on the wall when he arrived there, which appeared to have just been written moments before he arrived. It turned out it was a group of Palestinian descendants of refugees who were living up the hill and had spent the last week doing this kind of cat-and-mouse game with Israeli authorities, where the Israeli authorities were whitewashing the wall and they were writing messages back to Pope Francis, this being just another classic example of the kind of tensions and strange situations that you see out in this part of the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, but then, of course, that was followed by — and this is a sign of the balancing act that goes on there. That was followed today by the pope visiting a different memorial on the Israeli side.

So how much were the people around the pope aware of their need to do that kind of balancing act?

NICHOLAS CASEY: Well, when the pope comes to places — I have been with him in Brazil and with Benedict XVI in Cuba.

One of the things that you see is that everybody wants to put their political agenda in front of the pope. So when the pope got out of the car and prayed at the Bethlehem wall, immediately, there were people crying foul, saying that he was taking the Palestinian side. The Israelis later extended an invitation for him to come to visit the site for the memorial of victims of terrorists, which he also took up, which put a matter that’s very sensitive to them on the pope’s agenda as well.

So, throughout this trip, you were seeing almost everybody that he was visiting trying to get his eyes in front of their issue and trying to get him to say something and more or less put his blessing onto it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about the public reaction, as much as you could tell, Muslim, Jewish and, of course, Christian?

NICHOLAS CASEY: I think it was very positive.

Now, one thing that’s different for the pope when he comes to the Middle East is, even though he’s the head of the Catholic Church, there aren’t many Roman Catholics here. He’s not on his own turf when he comes to the Middle East. And the Christian population which is here is dwindling. This was part of the reason for the visit as well.

Take Bethlehem, which was about 70 percent Christian about 50 years ago. It’s now down to just about 15 percent of the city, this being the city where Christians believe that Christ was born. So, while he was received very positively, one of his messages was to the remaining Christians who are here was to keep up the hope and to stay, because one of the biggest problems facing Christians here is that from Syria to Iraq to even the Palestinian territories, people are beginning to disappear in that community.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Nicholas Casey of The Wall Street Journal from Jerusalem, thanks so much.

NICHOLAS CASEY: Thanks.