From Rome to the Damascus Mosque: The importance of and the perspectives on the visit of John Paul II

Television highlighted the decision of John Paul II to take off his shoes before stepping into the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. He wearily crossed the nave whose vaults are still held up by the columns of the Cathedral of John the Baptist. Then, in silence, he collected his thoughts in prayer, near the memorial where the relics of the Precursor are kept. Only the small papal entourage entered the mosque. Even to the yard, only a small number of Muslim and Christian leading personalities was admitted. Women were few, all of them wearing the official Muslim costume and all, in some way, linked to the State authorities.

The Roman Pontiff, The Republic’s Great Mufti and the Syrian Minister of Religious Affairs, who organized the even were the only ones for whom seats were reserved. All the others, among them the Patriarchs of the Christian Churches of Antioch, stood. The only exception was the chair from which a famous reader of the Holy Koran recited some appropriate verses. The reading of the Sacred text created a magic atmosphere in the Great Mosque’s courtyard at sunset, which lit the colors of the ancient Byzantine mosaics representing the coveted Islamic paradises so similar to the gardens of the Damascus oasis that today are covered by cement. All those present, wearing either turbans or the different hats of Eastern and Western priests, felt the importance of that historic event in the fascinating repetition of the Koran words “hua Allah, hua Allah” (“he is God, he is God”).

The speeches, although carefully prepared, could not match those historic moments. Paradoxically, everybody knew that the right background to the event was provided by the tragic Middle East context that was tentatively referred to by the speakers.

The Syrians wanted to take advantage of an international audience, to express the Arab frustration with what is considered to be the “absolute injustice” that the victimizes the Palestinian people and the entire Arab-Muslim world. It is possible, therefore, to understand the significance of the speech of the young Syrian President, when receiving his distinguished host at the airport, where he reminded his listeners of the sufferings inflicted to Christ and to the Islam Prophet by the Jewish people. Afterwards, he was accused of being anti-Semite and he replied saying that Arab are of Semitic origin, toot.

The Pope had, sincerely and with conviction, put anti-Semitic behaviours in Church history in the past (also through his visit to the Rome’s Synagogue and his request for pardon at the Wailing Wall). Nevertheless, he agreed to the visit the ghost town of Quneiytra, the symbol of Syrian awareness of having suffered injustice and barbarism.

At the ruins of the capital of Golan, still under occupation, near the cease-fire line, he raised a sorrowful prayer for peace. Was he accepting, in order to rebalance the Church’s position, by making an instrument of himself? Or, more simply, did John Paul II accept the irresolvable eternal contradiction of the Middle East conflict, in which it is impossible to stay neutral without being guilty of sins of omission? The pope chooses to be near to the Arabs, Christian and Muslim Arabs, in the place which is symbolic for the conflict, in order to express his solidarity with the homeless Palestinian people. At the same time, he showed the way to dialogue and negotiation without denying the brotherhood with the Israeli people, to which strengthening he had contributed.

The pontiff had already shown to not fully agree with the Atlantic keywords by declaring that he desires to start his jubilee and biblical pilgrimage in Iraq, where he would have confirmed his anti-conformist position, assumed during the Gulf War. The trip could not be realized for many complex reasons, one of which was the instability of the remaining Iraqi Christian community. In the Middle East it was thought that there had been a veto from the US administration linked to the protests against the sanctions by the Rais of Baghdad. What may seem contradictory in the Vatican position is their efforts to support different points of view and to express solidarity with the people that suffer from the conflict, together with their mission to show everyone the way to reconciliation and forgiveness through negotiation.

The Catholic Church promotes peace and this is why it welcomed the process started at Oslo. But, this encountered great difficulties and long interruptions and incongruities up to the breakout of the Aqsa Intifada, ignited by Ariel Sharon’s open and planned provocation. Vatican diplomacy did not lack the cultural means necessary to understand the incapacity of many classes of Palestinian society to accept the terms of those agreements. In the same, it was not difficult to foresee the deep-rooted opposition of Israeli public opinion, especially the religious one, to agreements that seemed to be based on a lay and pragmatic idea, if not on a secularized one, of an Arab-Israeli coexistence. The peace talks failed in the Esplanade of Solomon’s Temple symbolizing the religious vocation of the People of Israel to witness the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to which is linked the sacrament of the gift of the Promised Land. According to today’s Israelis the historical-biblical geographic area is that bordered by Mount Hermon, the Tiberiade Lake, The Jordan river, The Negev desert and the Mediterranean. In this situation, it is impossible for them to negotiate without betraying this gift.

To Palestinian Muslims, the conflict is symbolically represented in the Esplanade containing both the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. It is important to remember that for Muslims, too, Jerusalem is the city of the eschatological assembly on the day of the day of the resurrection. The Islamic possession of the Holy City represents the fact that the Islamic Umma Community is the legitimate heir of the biblical and extra biblical authentic monotheistic prophetic line. By trying to obtain power over “The Saint”, al-Quds, the various historical forms of “Antichrist” (al-Dajjal), that is, the crusaders, colonialists and Zionists, intend to fight and deny the universal importance of Islam’s mission.

From this point of view, the Jewish and Muslim positions are directly opposing and competitive. Certainly, for Muslims it is not impossible to understand the Israeli claiming of “the Saint”, even though the city has not benne Jewish for centuries. Because, time, for example, would not make Muslims renounce their rights to Mecca. Even though it is true that the Mecca has always been Arab, the same cannot be said for Jerusalem. Jerusalem, Bible witnesses, together with archaeological and other historical sources, was “Palestinian” (and here the anachronism is consistent with the categories now used by the Near East populations) before being David’s capital and Solomon’s temple. It was “Palestinian” in the Byzantine era before becoming Arab, as a result of the Islamic conquest. This does not diminish the strength of the Jewish claim, but it forces everyone to consider it with the Palestinian and Islamic claim and with the rights of Palestinian, Arab and universal Christianity.

To many it is incomprehensible, and for Muslims it is a scandal, that the secularized western world defends the Jewish Biblical claim while denying the equally just claim of Islam. On fact, it is not true that the Israeli people are claiming for a country denied by other people for centuries and that the restitution of Jerusalem is simply a restitution to its real owner. It is Israel that believes itself to be a people apart charged with an universal mission. It is Israel’s belief in the religious importance of Jerusalem that is at the root of the Holy City’s sanctity for Christians and Muslims. And all three of them think themselves to be the legitimate heirs to those ancient promises made by God to Abraham. Saint Patriarch is buried in Hebron. Arab’s al-Khalil where the most brutal episode of violence between Israelis and Palestinians [ …] two sons of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac found themselves united by brotherly pity during the burial of the “Father of all Believers”.

Peace, if ever, will be the result of a long process of negotiation and understanding among, Israelis, Muslims and Christians.

Israelis and Palestinians cannot be ignored. It is necessary to create opportunities for reflection and, I suggest, symbolic renegotiations. This means the involvement of the highest religious representatives together with the cultural and the political ones. It is necessary to involve the Muslim wing together with the international Islamic forces that support it and it is necessary to involve the Jewish world in all its different representations. Christians, toot, should have a role in the theoretical elaboration of an alternative to the present crisis. Overall, in global cultural logic, the theological history of Abraham’s religions must be incorporated into the world religions, especially in Asia. The destruction of the Great Statues of Buddha in Afghanistan rings an alarm bell.

The first step is the recognition of the other’s religious-political project together with an honest claim to one’s own project legitimacy. The Jews cannot renounce the Land of their Fathers and they think that this is the last generation capable of acquiring all the Promised Land. Muslims consider this is as a hostile act, partly because it is considered to be part of a universal Zionist plan. Moreover, Islam cannot renounce its universal plan that has Jerusalem as its highest place. It is also important to remember that Islam considers Christianity as a strategic ally led by Zionist plans. It is certain that the US vetoes, frustrating UN decision by being systematically in favor of Israel, are not the ones that will change Muslim’s ideas.

Consequently, it is evident that the conditions for a fair and lasting peace have not been achieved yet. In fact, the principle that no agreement can be made without renouncing the humiliation of others’ religious, cultural and national entities must be strengthened. There is a need to engage in finding step-by-step solutions, capable of foreseeing and planning an Israeli-Palestinian Holy Land. The proposal of a two-nation State is not new, nor is that for a multicultural lay state. Palestinians and Israelis will find the right solution once they decide to return to dialogue and reciprocity., and this will begin after a general truce granted by the UN. Palestinian Autonomy may be a useful instrument, as long as it is not intended to be the final solution. It is unacceptable to Palestinian and also to many Israelis, who do not want to live in an unclear situation and territorial discontinuity. The Arab countries cannot accept the loss of an essential part of their common nation and Muslim themselves will never accept the loss of Jerusalem, while the Jews all over the world will never accept the lack of the total control over the Holy City. And, if new ideas will not be adopted, it will always be more and more difficult to keep the status quo at the important sacred sites, and first of all, at the Mosques Esplanade or a Temple Esplanade, as we prefer to call it.

Is it illusion or realism to hope for dialogue between the Palestinian and Israeli religious leaders? Is it illusion or realism to conceive, with a help of experts and international and university initiatives, the future of Jerusalem and of the Holy land, on which, maybe, a methodological elaboration of a regional and global education for peace also depends?