Reporter's diary: Barbara Serra

Coverage of Pope Benedict XVI's tour of the Middle East.

    The pope's 2006 comments about Islam have damaged the image of the church around the world

    Al Jazeera's correspondent is travelling with Pope Benedict XVI on his current trip to the Middle East. She is keeping a daily reporter's diary as part of our special coverage of his tour of the region.

    Vatican faces public relations battle, May 14-15, 2009

    On the last day, I met him.

    After shadowing his every step for a week, I met Pope Benedict XVI on the return flight.

    Veterans of papal trips told me it was tradition for any journalist on their 'virgin' flight to get a picture taken with the pope.

    However, as the group got bigger, and the popes got older, that tradition fell by the wayside.

    But I guess being Al Jazeera's first reporter ever to fly with the pope warranted an exception.

    I have to thank the remarkable persuasive skills of one of my fellow papal watchers for arguing my case so successfully with the Vatican press officer.

    I was taken from the back of the plane to the first class section. The pope sits at the very front, surrounded by cardinals, security and his secretaries.

    But the seat next to his was empty and he seemed to be in contemplation, oblivious to the commotion around him.

    His press secretary waited a few minutes before getting his attention. Then, with the official Vatican photographer in place, I sat next to him.

    Papal warmth

    He looks kinder in real life. He's often accused of being aloof, an intellectual who can't connect with people like Pope John Paul II, his predecessor, could, but I was taken aback by his warmth.

    He held my hand tight in both of his and spoke in the soft tone of a grandfather.

    The Catholic church has been struggling with its public relations [AFP]
    The meeting took less than a minute and I'm now full of regrets... should I have asked him something? Does one have an opinionated exchange with God's representative on earth?

    Not this time. I was whisked to the back of the plane, where the other Vatican journalists were ready to quiz me so they could write their 'Pope meets Al Jazeera' articles.

    We landed back in Rome soon after and everyone said goodbye like you do at the end of a school trip.

    Some of the Italian journalists may have been a bit too close to the Vatican for my liking, but they were incredibly welcoming and friendly, as well as achingly funny.

    Flying as part of the pope's entourage was interesting, but often frustrating.

    You get the best televison pictures, front row at every event and a sense of how the Vatican thinks the trip is going.

    But having to stick to the pope's schedule means you don't have the opportunity to gauge first hand the impact that his visit and speeches are having.

    I worked as part of a team with my Al Jazeera colleagues in Amman, Jerusalem and the West Bank but, had that not been the case, it would have been nearly impossible to give the whole picture of the trip.

    Vatican favours

    The Catholic church has been struggling with its public relations, so it was interesting to see the dynamics of the Vatican media entourage at work.

    The vast majority of the journalists were from the Italian or Catholic media, and the Vatican seemed to give them a disproportionate amount of importance.

    Often Italian newspapers would get better access than international outlets with ten times their readership.

    The Vatican may still enjoy high status in Italy, but scandals of paedophilia in catholic institutions, coupled with blunders like the pope's 2006 comments about the Prophet Mohammed, have damaged the image of the church around the world.

    These are difficult topics that the church should not shy away from if it wants to tackle them properly and regain the trust of millions of people.

    The Italian media may be more subservient, but it's not necessarily representative.

    And the Vatican hierarchy should be aware that what it reads in the Italian newspapers does not always reflect the opinion it's held in around the world.

    Under the shadow of the wall in Bethlehem, May 13, 2009

    I must have done dozens, even hundreds, of interviews about Israel and the Palestinian territories: the separation wall, the check points, the difficulties faced when moving around (or trying to) and the frustration they bring. But still, I only fully understood the situation when I had to travel from Israel to the West Bank for the pope's visit to Bethlehem.

    A very sleepy press entourage gathered at the hotel lobby at 0445. Early starts are not unusual on these trips, but Bethlehem is only around 10 km from Jerusalem and we did not need to be at the welcoming ceremony until 0900. But when we got to the border we realised why we set off so early.

    The pope addressed Palestinian refugges at the Aida camp, close to the separation wall [AFP]
    As part of the papal press gang, I seem to have a pass for just about everywhere except heaven: a Vatican pass, an Israeli press and identity pass, a Palestinian pass, a pass for my luggage, all with my picture, name, employer and probably some distinguishing mark that even I don't know I have.

    And yet it took the group around 90 minutes of queues and controls to get from the Israeli side to where we needed to be in Bethlehem.

    The metal detectors and the barbed wire were to be expected. But the sight of the wall, which separates Palestinian towns from Israeli settlements, is shocking.

    It is 8 metres tall in parts, and extends as far as the eye can see. We had to get off the Israeli bus and walk through the border to get on a Palestinian bus.

    Grim reality

    Walking next to it, it seemed even more intimidating than it had at a distance. The graffiti on the Palestinian side was varied: "Stop apartheid" said one, though it was the "I want my ball back" which drew a chuckle from a rather subdued press corps.

    Travelling with the Vatican gives you unbelievable access (I've stood only a few feet from the pope) but it also cocoons you, not giving you a clear view of the people living in the lands the pontiff is visiting.

    But even this bubble burst when we went to the West Bank. Usually assertive Vatican organisers were powerless in front of the various checks and restrictions. The journalists were experiencing the realities of life in the Palestinian territories, and most of them looked surprised.

    Of course, what is a wall to some, is a separation barrier to others. On Wednesday, we found out the pope calls it a wall, as he spoke in its shadow in Bethlehem's Aida refugee camp. He later also made indirect references to its removal.

    Those words are unlikely to have much political impact, but they did make a difference to the people of Bethlehem. Their enjoyment at having the world's media come to them was palpable. The PR operation lacked the precision and grandeur of the Israeli one, but there was something magical about the pope celebrating mass in Manger Square.

    On a hot May day, traditional Christmas hymns resonated across the square. Salesmen of religious artefacts made the most of the influx of visitors, who are becoming  ever more rare in one of Christianity's most symbolic sites.

    Political controversy in Jerusalem, May 11-12, 2009

    The tests this trip was going to throw at Pope Benedict XVI came, as expected, during the second, and most challenging phase of the journey: Jerusalem. A shared city, a crucial place for Christianity, Islam and Judaism, and one of the main sticking points of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

    During Benedict's two hectic days here (hectic for the press too, so please forgive the  two days in one diary entry) it would have been easy to forget that one of the key parts of his trip was to support and visit the region's dwindling Catholic community.

    Many Israelis saw Benedict's speech at Yad Vashem as a missed opportunity [AFP]
    When the word Christian was mentioned in news reports it was in passing: what all the headlines focused on was the pope's relationships with Israelis and Palestinians.

    Never have the Vatican's protestations that this pilgrimage did not have a political agenda sounded more pointless.

    A mere glance around the city tells you that: The shared religious sites, the street signs in three languages, the stark contrast between East and West Jerusalem.

    Religion and politics are so intrinsically linked here that to separate them is impossible.

    The pope began his trip more strongly than many thought he would.

    Only minutes after landing at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, he alluded to the need for a two-state solution (a "homeland within internationally recognised borders" were his words), something the new Israeli government does not seem to support.

    But it wasn't this comment that caused the following day’s disastrous headlines.

    Rather, it was the pope's speech at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. No mention of "six million" when speaking of the number of Jews who died in the Holocaust, and no hint of apology that the Vatican could have done more to prevent the extent of the killing.

    An opportunity lost was how most Israeli papers summed it up. Headlines which apparently surprised and worried the Vatican.

    That wasn't the only embarrassment of the day.

    Criminal behaviour

    During a conference on inter-religious dialogue (without, ironically, any simultaneous translations) a Muslim cleric unexpectedly took the floor, accused Israel of criminal behaviour against Palestinians, actions that he then asked the pope to condemn.

    The Vatican looked embarrassed, but the incident should hardly have been a surprise, seeing as the same cleric did something very similar during the last papal visit in 2000.

    It would be easy to think the pope should not have come to the Holy Land right now.

    When Pope John Paul II came in  2000, the second intifada hadn't started, there had been no 9/11, and the visit certainly didn't come just months after the deaths of more than 1,300 Palestinians in the war on Gaza.

    Now, the tension is palpable.

    Should the bad timing have stopped him? One senior member of the local Latin clergy thinks not.

    "The timing is never right in this part of the world. Benedict XVI is now 82. He wanted to visit the Holy Land and his followers now. This trip, and its timing, are the actions of a very brave man."

    Thousands attend papal mass in Amman, May 10, 2009

    You know a country is excited about a distinguished visitor to its soil when the visit has its own theme song. 

    Like a lot of music, it's actually a remix of another tune, namely the chant that you hear in St Peter's Square in Rome when the crowds are calling to Pope Benedict XVI.

    It is not far from what you might get at a football stadium, complete with clapping: "BEEEEEEN…EDETTO" (clap, clap, clap-clap-clap-clap!).

    In Rome, you just repeat his name, but the Jordanians have added some Italian lyrics to the chorus (Beeeeen….venuto! in Giordaaaaa –niaaaa - welcome to Jordan) and then whole verses in Arabic about his mission of peace and the beauty of their land.

    My poor attempts at writing the song' beat may mislead (you had to be there … ), but trust me, it's a catchy tune, especially when sung by 20,000 people all waiting to see their pope celebrate the first public mass of his trip to the Holy Land.

    With this chanting, and under a strengthening spring sun, it felt like the Stadium of Amman was about to host a rock concert, not a religious service by the leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

    Enthusiastic congregation

    The Stadium was around three quarters full (in the days of Pope John Paul II there would have been queues around the block), but there was no denying the enthusiasm of the congregation.

    The Pope urged Christians to keep their faith in a region devastated by conflict [AFP]
    Their joy was palpable when they caught a glimpse of the "PopeMobile" as it entered the stadium, taking the long way to the altar, so the pope could see and be seen close up by as many people as possible.

    Judging by the flags they were carrying, the faithful were from all over the Middle East and beyond - Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian, Iraqi, with the odd flag from France, Argentina and even Sri Lanka.

    Some, like the Lebanese, had travelled especially to see the pope. But most of the Iraqis and Palestinians have long called Jordan home, driven out of their own countries by conflict.

    The service was in Latin - the ancient language of Catholicism - and Arabic. The pop theme tune replaced by sung prayers accompanied by a full orchestra.

    Respect and affection

    Benedict XVI is often criticised for lacking the populist appeal of his predecessor.

    Indeed, some of the children who were there to receive their First Communion (the first time they can fully participate in Mass) looked bored and restless during the two-hour service. 

    But the thousands of adult followers who had come to watch the pope celebrate Sunday Mass looked at their spiritual leader with respect and affection.

    The rain which had been forecast over Amman for Sunday morning never came.

    The pope leaves Jordan knowing he has difficult days ahead in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

    But he has also been reminded that his presence in the Middle East is valued by thousands of his followers.

    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 news 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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