Reporter's diary: Barbara Serra

Arab media focused on relationship between the church and Jews during papal visit.

    Pope Benedict XVI made the most important speech so far during his Middle East
    tour at the King Hussein Mosque in Amman [AFP]

    Al Jazeera's Barbara Serra is travelling with the pope on his current trip to the Middle East. She will be keeping a daily reporter’s diary as part of our special coverage of the first papal tour of the region.

    The view from the Arab media, Saturday, May 9, 2009

    Compared to the political minefield that next week's visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories promises to be, this was meant to be the easy part.

    A few days in peaceful and stable Jordan were meant to be a chance for Pope Benedict XVI to mend fences with Muslims after the offence caused by his Regensburg University comments in 2006 linking Islam to violence.

    But rather than Islam, it was the relationship between the Church and Jews that ended up dominating the Arab media agenda.

    The pope's most important speech of his trip so far came at around noon local time, at the King Hussein Mosque in Amman.

    One of the main themes of the pope's pilgrimage to the Holy Land has been to seek better relations between Islam and Christianity, and his speech called for focus on what unites the two religions rather than what divides them.

    Political land

    He said that followers must stand together against the "ideological manipulation of religion, sometimes for political ends, which is the real catalyst for tension and division, and at times even violence".

    Pope Benedict called to stand against ideological manipulation of religion [AFP]
    But it was not this speech that captured the headlines and imagination of the Arab media. It was the pope's earlier address at Mount Nebo, where the Bible says God showed Moses the promised land, that was debated on the Arab street.

    Few outside the region would see political undertones in the words the pope said on the mountain.

    "May our encounter today inspire in us a renewed love for the canon of sacred scripture and a desire to overcome all obstacles to the reconciliation of Christians and Jews in mutual respect and co-operation," he said.

    "The ancient tradition of pilgrimage to the holy places also reminds us of the inseparable bond between the Church and the Jewish people."

    Absent absolution

    But the mention of an "inseparable bond between the Church and the Jewish people", made in a Muslim country, angered some Jordanian clerics and many Arab commentators.

    Add to that the absence of a clear and total apology for the Regensburg comments during the Mosque speech - which few Muslims realistically think will ever come, but were hoping for nonetheless - and Vatican spokesman Father Lombardi's comments on Saturday, that "the dialogue with Muslims took some forward steps", sound a little hollow.

    The Vatican's protestations that this is not a political trip will not stop Arabs and Israelis viewing everything through a political lens.

    From a Christian point of view, it makes perfect sense to mention the links between Christianity and Judaism at a site linked to Moses.

    But such religious details are lost in this region of heightened sensitivities, where politics and religious identity are intrinsically linked.

    And the Vatican's claims that we're on the way to better dialogue may be a little premature.

    Aboard the papal plane, Friday, May 8, 2009

    A news conference at 11,000 metres was always going to be slightly different.

    A press conference for journalists took place on the papal plane to Jordan [AFP]
    Add to that an interviewee who is the spiritual leader of more than 1.1 billion Catholics around the world and you have an initial press conference of Benedict XVI's first trip to the Middle East.

    The conference took place on the papal plane as the entourage headed from Rome to Jordan.

    Banish any mental images you may have of Air Force One. Prayer Force One, as some journalists have artfully dubbed it, is a humble Alitalia Airbus A320, which is normally part of the general fleet until it occasionally receives a higher calling.

    The pope and his entourage of at least two dozen aides occupy the front of the plane, while at least 70 journalists, cameramen and photographers are unsurprisingly relegated to the back.

    Veterans of such trips say that the late Pope John Paul II used to come and chat with the journalists, answering questions and making a joke or two.

    Benedict, his successor, is much more reserved. We only saw Benedict XVI once, during the press conference, if one can call it that.

    Questions prepared by journalists were submitted in writing the previous week. Four were chosen and put to the pope by his own spokesman - hardly a grilling.

    But considering that popes do not usually give interviews, it will probably be the only time during the trip that he will take questions from journalists.

    Playing safe

    It is obvious that Benedict's entourage were playing it safe and who can blame them.

    Pope Benedict XVI is on his first trip to the Middle East [Gallo/Getty]
    The now-infamous comments the pope made during a speech at Regensburg University in 2006 linking the Prophet Muhammad to violence offended many Muslims. 

    His recent revoking of the excommunication of a bishop who turned out to be a Holocaust denier outraged Jews in Israel and beyond. But it's the peace process, or lack there of, that more than anything could prove to be a diplomatic minefield.

    Benedict XVI has stressed that he's on a pilgrimage and not a political trip, but this is the Middle East and his comments will invariably acquire a political dimension, especially so soon after the war in Gaza.

    On the plane he was asked what role he could play in any lasting peace between Israelis and the Palestinians.

    He said that the Church was not a political power but a spiritual force, one that was a reality that can contribute to progress.

    Certainly a noble sentiment, but one which lacks the detail anyone on the front line of the conflict would want to hear.

    It's no coincidence that the pope kicked off his trip in Jordan, which is seen as a success story of religious tolerance.

    In Jordan, the Christian minority holds up to five per cent of the population, enjoying a high status in society along with peaceful relations with their Muslim neighbours.

    The first place the pope chose to visit on Friday was a Catholic run educational centre for the disabled, which is open to people of all faiths - a symbol perhaps of the religious harmony he speaks of.

    The pope will head to Israel and the occupied territories of Palestine on Monday, a region where religious harmony is in short supply - that is when the real challenges of his trip will begin.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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