Pope Francis: 'The Che Guevara of the Palestinians'?

The pontiff may recognize the “State of Palestine,” but will he acknowledge the plight of Palestinian Christians?

“The Che Guevara of the Palestinians” is set to visit Palestinian Authority-controlled Judea and Samaria next week, beginning in Bethlehem, and the city of Jesus’s birth is already in high excitement. The bearer of that illustrious title is none other than Pope Francis. According to Israel National News, “Rabbi Sergio Bergman, a member of the Argentinian parliament and close friend of Pope Francis…said that the pope intends to define himself as the ‘Che Guevera of the Palestinians’ and support their ‘struggle and rights’ during his visit.”

If the Pope or anyone around him has expressed a similar intention to speak out about the Muslim persecution of Palestinian Christians, it has not been recorded – in sharp contrast to the abundance of signals that the Pope has sent to Palestinian Authority officials. Fr. Jamal Khader of the Latin patriarchate of Jerusalem explained: “He is taking a helicopter directly from Jordan to Palestine -- to Bethlehem. It’s a kind of sign of recognizing Palestine.” In anticipation of his doing just that officially, Palestinian officials have put up posters proclaiming “State of Palestine” and depicting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Pope Francis, and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople.

Not only that, but while in Bethlehem, Pope Francis will meet with Abbas; he also plans to celebrate Mass there rather than in Jerusalem, a move that Israel National News says “has been called a show of support for the PA.” He then plans to visit a Palestinian “refugee camp.”

Khader predicted: “Knowing who he is, and his sensitivity for all those who suffer, I am sure that he will say something defending all those who are suffering, including the Palestinians who live under occupation.” Ziyyad Bandak, Abbas’s adviser for Christian affairs, was enthusiastic: “This visit will help us in supporting our struggle to end the longest occupation in history….We welcome this visit and consider it as support for the Palestinian people, and confirmation from the Vatican of the need to end the occupation.”

All this comes after a Church official in Jerusalem criticized Israeli authorities for asking that a sign announcing the Pope’s visit be taken down from a historic site on which such signs are prohibited for preservation reasons. The unnamed official referenced recent Hebrew-language hate graffiti spray-painted on mosques and churches, saying that he and other Church officials “question the fact that the police, instead of taking action against the extremists who paint hate slogans on mosques and churches, choose to remove a sign with a positive message that welcomes the pope in three languages. We hope the police will act with the same determination to prevent the growing incitement and violence against Christians.”

While referring to the graffiti as “incitement and violence against Christians,” however, Church officials have been much more reticent regarding Muslim persecution of Palestinian Christians, even when it has included actual violence. According to Israel National News, “Christian Arab residents of the village of El-Khader in the Bethlehem area were savagely attacked by local Muslims as they celebrated a Christian holiday two weeks ago. A report by CAMERA, an organization which monitors anti-Israel bias in the media, reported that Christians attempting to enter Saint George’s Monastery in the village were intimidated and attacked with rocks and stones.”

Yet about this and other incidents of Muslim persecution of Christians, Pope Francis, as well as Vatican and Church officials, have said little. Last November, Pope Francis decried the plight of “Christians who suffer in a particularly severe way the consequences of tensions and conflicts in many parts of the Middle East.” He added that “Syria, Iraq, Egypt and other areas of the Holy Land sometimes overflow with tears” and declared: “We won’t resign ourselves to a Middle East without Christians who for two thousand years confess the name of Jesus, as full citizens in social, cultural and religious life of the nations to which they belong.”

Neither on that occasion or any other, however, has Pope Francis ever ascribed the suffering of Middle Eastern Christians to anything beyond “the consequences of tensions and conflicts in many parts of the Middle East.” Apparently he believes that if those tensions and conflicts could somehow be resolved, Christians would be able to live freely in the Middle East. After all, he has famously asserted that “authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence,” thereby dismissing the possibility that Christians may be facing persecution from Muslims who are obeying the Qur’anic imperative to fight them “until they pay the jizya with willing submission and feel themselves subdued” (9:29).

What’s more, when Pope Benedict XVI spoke out in January 2011 against the jihad bombing of the Coptic cathedral in Alexandria, Egypt, Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the world’s most prestigious Sunni Muslim institution, reacted angrily, breaking off dialogue with the Vatican and accusing the Pope of interference in internal Egyptian affairs. In a statement, Al-Azhar denounced the pontiff’s “repeated negative references to Islam and his claims that Muslims persecute those living among them in the Middle East.” When Pope Francis succeeded Benedict, Al-Azhar and other Muslim authorities expressed hopes that he would repair relations between Muslims and Christians by not repeating the mistakes of his predecessor — including speaking out about the Muslim persecution of Christians.

Francis complied, affirming his “respect” for Islam and apparently accepting al-Azhar’s stipulation that “casting Islam in a negative light is ‘a red line’ that must not be crossed.” He has not, in any case, crossed it, even to decry the actions of Muslims to harass, victimize and persecute Christians because of Qur’anic declarations that they are accursed of Allah for saying Jesus is the Son of God (9:30); are unbelievers for affirming the divinity of Christ (5:17; 5:72); and must be warred against and subjugated (9:29).

And so during his trip that the Palestinians are awaiting with such excitement, it is likely that he will have little, if anything, to say about how core beliefs held by the Palestinians he is celebrating are used to justify the oppression of their Christian brethren. It is even less likely that he will note that Christians in Israel enjoy greater rights and freedoms than their brethren in any Muslim country. We may only hope that whatever the “Che Guevara of the Palestinians” says in Bethlehem or elsewhere in the Palestinian Authority, that it will not be capable of being exploited, by those persecutors of Christians he seems determined to ignore, to justify their actions and perpetuate that persecution.

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