Should Pope Benedict visit Gaza? – A response to Deal Hudson

In February, a group of Palestinian Christians asked Pope Benedict XVI to call off his planned visit to Israel and the West Bank, concerned that his visit would “help boost Israel’s image and inadvertently minimize Palestinian suffering under Israeli occupation.” (Haaretz).

Adopting a different approach, Ma’an News Agency reports that a petition raised by the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, the University of San Francisco, and several other U.S. peace organizations asking Pope Benedict XVI to make a stop in the Gaza Strip has received over 2000 signatures.

In a recent post to InsideCatholic.com, Deal Hudson raises the question: Should Benedict XVI Include Gaza in his Holy Land Visit? — answering in the affirmative:

[A]dding Gaza to the papal visit to the Holy Land would indeed send a message to all concerned, including Hamas, which some Christians fear was strengthened by the three-week Israeli offensive. Benedict XVI could visit Holy Family Parish in Gaza City, where Msgr. Manuel Musallam and his parishioners lived through the bombing that began on Dec. 28 and the ground invasion a week later on Jan. 3, 2009. Msgr. Musallam and his parish minister to the 200 Catholics remaining in Gaza (there are approximately another 3,000 Christians, most of whom are Greek Orthodox.)

[…]

The visit of Benedict XVI will be viewed by the Christians living in the Holy Land through the lens of 1417 deaths in Gaza, including 313 children, during the 22-day Israeli campaign. With the election of Benjamin Netanyahu, Christians in Bethlehem expressed fear that their city could become another Gaza. “We already live surrounded by walls and check points. Why shouldn’t we think that what happened in Gaza could happen to us?” said a young woman in her mid-twenties who comes from one of the oldest, and most prominent, Christian families in Bethlehem.

Palestinian Christians will be deeply disappointed and demoralized if Benedict XVI simply repeats the itinerary of John Paul II. “There will be bad consequences for the Church if he does this,” Abu Zuluf told me. He did not explain this comment, but when I asked an American priest who had lived near Bethlehem for over a decade he related it to a comment he heard from a Christian woman in Bethlehem. She said to him, “Tell the Holy Father not to lose his dignity when he comes here.”

Readers familiar with my opinions on the Israeli-Palestianian conflict (full disclosure: I maintain the blog Catholic Friends of Israel) will likely be surprised to note that I am in tentative agreement with Hudson: I think that a Papal visit to Gaza — taken as an expression of solidarity with the Christian communities there — may be a good thing.

This is not to say, however, that I have some concerns — both with Hudson’s reasons for taking the stance as he does, as well as issues involving the proposal itself.

Questionable Statistics

In citing the casualties from Israel’s campaign to prevent rocket attacks from Gaza, Hudson links to a Reuters article which in turn relies upon the findings of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. The numbers cited by this source have been heavily disputed by CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) and the official accounting of the IDF:

According to the data gathered by the Research Department of the Israel Defense Intelligence, there were 1166 names of Palestinians killed during Operation Cast Lead. 709 of them are identified as Hamas terror operatives, amongst them several from various other terror organizations. Furthermore, it has been found that 295 uninvolved Palestinians were killed during the operation, 89 of them under the age of 16, and 49 of them women. In addition, there are 162 names of men that have not yet been attributed to any organization.

It is disconcerting, then, that Hudson simply takes the Reuters’ / PCHR figures at face-value without any qualification.

“Harsh restrictions on movement”

According to Hudson, the problem with retracing the steps of Pope John Paul II is that the Holy Land has changed dramatically since 2000:

Ever since the uprising (Second Intifada) that followed the visit of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount in September 2000, the West Bank has been in a state of lock-down enforced by hundreds of miles of security walls, checkpoints, settlements, settler roads, and harsh restrictions on freedom of movement.

It is indeed lamentable that “Palestinian Christians have virtually no access to the holy sites in East Jerusalem, Galilee, and Nazareth”; that students in religious classes of Bethlehem University are routinely denied visas to travel outside the city, or that Gazan students are prevented from attending school in Bethlehem. Nonetheless, any moral evaluation of these admittedly-difficult conditions would have to take into account precisely WHY these “harsh restrictions on movement” are enforced — and that is a lengthy and complex discussion Hudson’s article does not go into.

For example, it is a fact that the Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal cited “freedom of movement for priests and religious between these regions is a primary pastoral concern” and declared: “it’s time to put an end to the Wall, the Checkpoints, it’s time for a Palestinian State, it’s time for an end to our problems with visa’s.” No doubt Hudson would concur.

But any discussion of the moral relevance of Israel’s Wall should take into account that approximately 75 percent of the suicide bombers who attacked targets inside Israel came from across the border where the first phase of the fence was built; that since construction of the fence began, the number of attacks has declined by more than 90%. The number of Israelis murdered and wounded has decreased by more than 70% and 85%.

During the 34 months from the beginning of the violence in September 2000 until the construction of the first continuous segment of the security fence at the end of July 2003, Samaria-based terrorists carried out 73 attacks in which 293 Israelis were killed and 1950 wounded. In the 11 months between the erection of the first segment at the beginning of August 2003 and the end of June 2004, only three attacks were successful, and all three occurred in the first half of 2003.

and that the leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad has admitted to the fence as an effective deterrent to suicide-bombing.

All of course, at the cost of “harsh restrictions on movement.”

Oppressed by Israel?

One aspect of the plight of Palestinian Christians is glaringly absent from Hudson’s latest article: the fact of the persecution of Arab Christians by Muslim extremists. Hudson relays the fears of a Christian resident of Bethlehem over the election of “right winger” Benjamin Netanyahu. But what might also be contributing to the precarious situation of Christians in Bethlehem? — An article in the UK’s Daily Mail in 2006 speaks of “the sense of a creeping Islamic fundamentalism” pervading the city:

[Bethlehem’s] Christian population has dwindled from more than 85 per cent in 1948 to 12 per cent of its 60,000 inhabitants in 2006.

There are reports of religious persecution, in the form of murders, beatings and land grabs.

Meanwhile, the breakdown in security is putting off tourists, leading to economic hardship for Christians, who own most of the town’s hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops. …

Bethlehem’s hotel owners estimate that tourist numbers have dropped sharply, from 91,276 each month for the millennium celebrations in 2000 to little more than 1,500 a month now.

During the past six years, 50 restaurants, 28 hotels and 240 souvenir shops have closed.

Samir Qumsieh is general manager of Al-Mahed – Nativity – which is the only Christian television station in Bethlehem.

He has had death threats and visits from armed men demanding three acres of his land – and he is now ready to leave.

“As Christians, we have no future here,” he says.

(See also: “Bethlehem Christians fear neighbors” Jerusalem Post 2007).

What is confusing is that Arab persecution of the Palestinian Christians is something of which Hudson is undoubtedly aware. In 2007, he blogged about this very issue, noting international human rights lawyer Justus Reid Weiner’s observation that

“The systematic persecution of Christian Arabs living in Palestinian areas is being met with nearly total silence by the international community, human rights activists, the media and NGOs.”

Hence the confusion over his latest article, presenting a one-sided picture of Israeli oppression.

On this topic, see:

Returning to the question of whether Pope Benedict XVI should visit Gaza, I think that — taken as an expression of solidarity with the Christian community — it may be a positive thing.

My concern would chiefly be one of security — to whom would be entrusted the security of the Pope? Is the controlling authority (Hamas) demonstrably reliable in ensuring the Pope’s safety? Or in cooperating with Israel in this regard?

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