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The Pope’s Journey

May 8, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Joining me to continue our look at the pope’s Mediterranean pilgrimage John Esposito is director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University; Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad is president of the Minaret of Freedom Institute, an Islamic think tank; Susannah Heschel is chair of the Jewish Studies Program at Dartmouth College and author of “Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus;” and George Weigel is a Roman Catholic theologian and author of “Witness to Hope, the Biography of Pope John Paul II.”

What was on the pope’s agenda beyond the list of public stops, preaching and blessing?

GEORGE WEIGEL, Ethics & Public Policy Center: This was, as you accurately described it, Ray, a religious pilgrimage, this was the completion of the great biblical pilgrimage that John Paul began in Sinai and the Holy Land last year. In this phase of this great jubilee pilgrimage he wanted to walk where Saint Paul had walked, pray where Saint Paul had prayed, preached on the Areopagus, in Athens, where Saint Paul had preached his famous sermon on the unknown God.

In the course of that pilgrimage I think it’s obvious that the pope wanted to lift up two of the great themes of this pontificate, namely the quest for Christian unity, which was so high on the agenda in Greece and I think took a significant step forward, and the imperative of interreligious dialogue as a foundation for religious freedom in the 21st century and as the basis of building tolerance.

RAY SUAREZ: I think in a lot of the West people reading the newspapers might have been surprised how little some of these groups are willing to let very old conflicts drop. How has, for instance, the fight between Eastern and Western Christendom followed Catholics and Orthodox Christians into the 21st century? What is there still to be worked out?

GEORGE WEIGEL: Well, there’s a lot of history obviously that is on particularly the minds of Orthodox Christians, a great set of animosities to be worked through. But what’s so interesting about John Paul II is that he refuses to take no for an answer. He refuses to believe that it’s impossible for the Christian East and the Christian West to come together again, and I think what we saw is that his very presence in these situations changes the human dynamics of these situations. People are willing to talk again and talk in a way that they had not talked before because of the power of his personal witness to the truth of Christian unity.

RAY SUAREZ: John Esposito, the pope then moved on to the Middle East, where perhaps a purely religious visit might be a little more difficult to pull off.

JOHN ESPOSITO, Georgetown University: Yeah, I think so. I think that — but I think we all know realistically, given the politics in the Middle East and particularly what’s happened today in Palestine Israel — one could have expected that however much this was a religious visit the political issues and overtones would wind up being raised, as they were raised very much up front in Syria.

RAY SUAREZ: But here we see the pope not only doing things very heavy with symbolism, like visiting a mosque, which has been a church in the past, which is home to some of the remains traditionally of John the Baptist, but we see him in the contested Golan Heights praying at the ruins of a church in a town destroyed by war. A more difficult visit?

JOHN ESPOSITO: I think it is, but I think that one has to really note the significance of what was being done. I think that when you look at the visit to Syria as to the other areas, the pope was responding to all of the monotheistic traditions, and so for example, it’s important to note that the pope first went to a synagogue in 1986. Now he goes to a mosque, the Umayyad Mosque, 2001, and it’s the first visit, so you have that long period of time. It’s a trip that, you know, was — was meant to be.

On the other hand, I think that, you know, going to the Golan Heights was the pope’s way of, I think, taking his own and asserting his own position with regard to the area. But always within the context that he would always fall back, despite the fact that there was controversy about this occasion or that occasion on his calling upon Muslims, Christians and Jews to move towards peace, to move towards reconciliation.

RAY SUAREZ: Susannah Heschel, was that a risk worth taking for the pope?

SUSANNAH HESCHEL: Well, first of all, I think we have to look at this situation in historical context, and what’s remarkable is that we’re having this conversation in the first place. In other words, that we’re expecting the pope to speak out on behalf of Judaism and against anti-Semitism; that historically is a remarkable fact. But that makes the silence on this occasion very troubling, the silence… and comments that were made while he was in Syria.

And the problem there is that first of all anti-Semitism has been condemned by the Church for a number of years, since the Second Vatican Council, so that when the pope is confronted with a statement like this, he is confronted with someone who is, in fact, speaking against Church traditions and Church beliefs. Why would he not speak back on this occasion, just as he would probably speak out if somebody said that abortion was permissible? So it was an attack on the Church, an affront, and that’s troubling, and then at the same time, we have to say that the pope on this occasion in Syria was confronted in part with the fruits of Catholic teachings of contempt for Judaism.

And this is very tragic. In my own experience I have students who are Catholic who’ve never heard that the Jews have been accused of killing Christ, because the Catholic Church has changed its school books for the last 25, 35 years. But in other parts of the world the Church has not overcome those teachings. And so the pope was in a sense confronted with certain Catholic problems that have been sowed in our country, in our world.

RAY SUAREZ: The pope’s spokesman at the time said that no response directly to President Assad was necessary because the pope has spoken out many times on this issue and his own beliefs are well known. Do we get into diplomatic questions here, as much as us trying to understand the implications of his silence?

SUSANNAH HESCHEL: Well, there are a couple of issues. First of all, the pope has spoken out very forcefully against anti-Semitism, but he’s spoken out most forcefully in a synagogue or in the state of Israel where he’s surrounded by Jews. Now, what happens when no Jews are present in Syria? Will he still speak out as our friend and speak up to that commitment to the Jewish people? And that’s a problem, and I think that’s why so many Jews are very disturbed, and then we can also ask on the political level, when he is silent, does he in fact give the Syrians a platform to spread their malicious statements about Judaism and Jews. So is he being used by them?

RAY SUAREZ: George Weigel.

GEORGE WEIGEL: I just want to add something to this. I think it is simply not accurate to say that the pope was silent in the face of this vicious and awful statement from President Assad. Twice in Damascus and then again yesterday… the pope laid out a vision of Christian, Muslim and Jewish relations that is wholly different from the rant that President Assad got off in Damascus and that anyone with the ears to hear would have heard as a response to this.

RAY SUAREZ: By implication?

GEORGE WEIGEL: I think it’s quite straight forward. I don’t think it’s implication. He’s silent if we’re not listening; if we’re listening to what he’s actually saying, he was — he was clearly countering Assad’s awful vision of the relationships among the three monotheistic faiths with a much deeper, nobler vision of Christians, Muslims and Jews witnessing together to the truth of the one God, and working together to build the societies of religious freedom and tolerance. It’s just not true that he was silent.

RAY SUAREZ: Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, join us at this point because I wonder coming out of Syria, what becomes the most significant fact of that trip — the difficulty during that one stop, or the fact that he was with… in Damascus in the Umayyad Mosque?

IMAD-AD-DEAN AHMAD, Minaret for Freedom Institute: Well, I think the focus — attention has been given to these statements by President Assad that perhaps distracted us from more important things that were coming out of there. The — the phrase that is objectionable and what Assad said is actually just a reflection of the phrase that was used a couple of weeks ago by Israel Shamir, the famous Israeli writer, and he got criticized by the American Committee for Jerusalem here in Washington… and other Muslims… criticized for apparently being anti-Semitic in trying to meet a collectivist assertion and an identification between the persecution of Christ and the problem — the persecution of the Palestinians today.

What’s most interesting to me is what the pope said and that was especially when he was leaving the airport on his way to Malta, and he said to President Bashar that the peace that he was hoping to bring us all forward to through this trip was something that would have to be arrived at through the confines of international law and U.N. resolutions. And I think this is a very important thing because it’s something that had to be said, so this was a ground breaking visit for the Pope. On the one hand that he was meeting with leaders of the Eastern Orthodox Church after so much time — even today some resistance.

The fact that he was going into a mosque and after so much time and there was some criticism for that and now that he was trying to establish what is important if we want to move forward towards peace. And I think that that’s the thing that people should remember, that it’s allowed the dialogue to take place. That because of this exchange, even just a discussion like the four of us or five of us here are having, it is taking place, and maybe people are beginning to get a perspective that they never got before.

JOHN ESPOSITO: I think the pope also went out of his way — I think it was the next day — in speaking to Syrian youth to emphasize that religion should not be misused to promote hate and violence. And so, you know, I think to the extent that he could, he played the role that one would expect. But one has to realize that when you step on the stage in Syria or you step on the stage — let’s say if he was stepping on the stage in Tel Aviv — one can expect that political leaders on either side would also be putting out their line both the domestic consumption as well as international consumption.

And the pope like any leader who’s there is there to say what he has to say. Someone else says what they say, he can then make counter statements, that is, make a statement the next day which clearly indicates where he’s coming from. But I think even in terms of protocol, you wouldn’t engage let’s say in a debate right on the spot; you wouldn’t expect that, and that’s not the style of I think this pope or any pope in terms of their office.

RAY SUAREZ: Susannah Heschel, is that the difficulty right there, he knows why he’s there and what he means, but others may use it differently?

SUSANNAH HESCHEL: The difficulty is that the pope should not be expected to make a forceful statement to Jews when he is in Israel and then not take that statement to Israel’s enemy, Syria. Expect him to be just as forceful and that his message should not be… by implication or by symbol but through words, and this is a pope after all who seems to be modeling himself as a religious person on the biblical prophets. They didn’t simply go to a place that was full of sin but they went to a place and spoke out and faced their enemy, so we expect the pope to speak out when he goes to Syria and unfortunately it seems to be that silence in this case is not going to create peace.

RAY SUAREZ: George Weigel, this is the same man who scolded the Sandinistas, famously, on his visit to Nicaragua. Has been — in his younger years — very forceful in discussions with churches under pressure and under persecution in various parts of the world. Is part of the problem that in symbolic terms there’s a lot of heavy freight being carried here but he is no longer the same vigorous man who can respond and take control of events in the same way.

GEORGE WEIGEL: No, I don’t think it’s the latter, Ray. I saw the Holy Father six weeks ago and he seemed to me on top of his game for an hour and a half over a very vigorous discussion of the future at lunch. He was not going to allow a pilgrimage to be hijacked by a politician for his political act. He kept the emphasis throughout the visit on — in a religious dialogue and a religious tolerance; he certainly left it up both in Damascus and Quneitra. The profound respect in the Catholic Church for Judaism, for Islam. He offered an entirely different vision of the human future than was contained in that spewing of hate from President Assad, and I think the world will hear that in the months ahead.

RAY SUAREZ: Does anything substantial come out of this, very briefly?

IMAD-AD-DEAN AHMAD: Well, one can hope it can. I’m just concerned that the pope should be criticized for not saying — engaging in an argument with his hosts and on the grounds that he should speak as forthrightly in Syria as he should in Israel. That can be turn around too, one can ask the question the comment that he made to President Bashar, shouldn’t that have been a comment that he makes to Ariel Sharon or he makes to other Israeli leaders about the importance of Israeli observance of international law.

I think — I’m hopeful that something good will come out of this because I believe that the pope began a process of constructive dialogue, and I think constructive dialogue is just that — it’s constructive, and one holds hope that it will lead to something better in the future.

RAY SUAREZ: Guests, thank you all.