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Pope Francis stresses commonalities in trip to Middle East

May 24, 2014 at 4:11 PM EDT
Pope Francis met with King Abdullah in Jordan Saturday on the first day of a three-day tour of the Middle East, stressing the relationships between Christianity, Judaism and Islam. This is only the fourth visit of a pope to the region in fifty years. Robert Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations talks with Hari Sreenivasan about the Pope’s balancing act of destinations and words.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For more about the Pope’s trip to the Middle East we are joined now from Washington by Robert Danin. He is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

So Mr. Danin, this is the Pope’s second big trip and everyone thinks it’s very significant partly because it’s the Middle East but also how he’s decided to take the trip matters.

ROBERT DANIN: Absolutely, he’s starting his trip off in Jordan, he’ll be in Jordan for a bit and then he’s flying into Bethlehem as the state of Palestine and this is giving the Israelis some concern. But then he’s going on to Israel and he’s going to visit the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, which is giving the Palestinians some concern. So he’s going to leave people a little bit concerned all around I think.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So is this a balancing act to try to stay on a religious course even in such a political context?

ROBERT DANIN:  Well, yes, first of all he says this is an ecumenical trip and its focus is going to be on religion not politics. But in that part of the world you can’t disaggregate politics from religion. And so therefore he’s trying make sure that he balances everything. People will be looking very closely for symbols and signs of tilting in one direction or the other.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And all this is happening as the negotiations, or peace talks, have completely stalled.

ROBERT DANIN: That’s absolutely right. This visit is going to highlight the divisions that exist between the Israelis and the Palestinians in particular and the absence of peace between them. He’s visiting Bethlehem, which is just a few miles away from Jerusalem, and yet he’s going to fly to Tel Aviv and then helicopter again back to Jerusalem in order to assuage Israeli sensitivities. To make it clear that he visits Israel, that he visits the Palestinians separately. There’s a lot of juggling that has to be done in order to make sure that two sides that don’t agree on very much are assuaged.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  And so what can a Pope accomplish in this context?

ROBERT DANIN:  Well, the first point of this visit is to try to stress the unity of the Christian church –of the Eastern Orthodox Church and of Rome, the Catholic Church. That’s his number one objective and he’ll do that. Secondly, I think preaching a spirit of ecumenicalism – he’s bringing along with him an imam; he’s bringing along with him a rabbi. He’s trying to show that the three monotheistic faiths, Christianity, Judaism and Islam can live together. And if he sends that message to the people of the Holy Land, that’s not bad.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And another example of the Pope sort of going his own way, he’s chosen not to have the bullet-proof glass security vehicles even when he’s in these hot spots.

ROBERT DANIN:  What’s clear is that this is very important to him. This is only his second trip abroad as Pope and he’s clearly picked this as important to him. Popes don’t go to the Holy Land very often and this is only the fourth visit of a Pope to the Holy Land in 50 years. So this is not an everyday occurrence. He clearly wants to go. He’s going to be scrutinized very closely and the stakes are quite high for him because people will be watching him very closely.

HARI SREENIVASAN:All right Robert Danin joining us from Washington and the Council on Foreign Relations, thanks for your time.

ROBERT DANIN:  Pleasure. Thank you for having me.