THE pilgrimage of Pope Francis on May 24-26 to the Holy Land on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem may actually have done more than just marking an anniversary.
Pope Francis has moved more steps forward into bridging the walls that have divided Christians among themselves. Exactly 50 years ago on January 5, 1964, the embrace in Jerusalem between Paul VI and patriarch of Constantinople Athenagoras marked the beginning of a journey of reconciliation between the Church of Rome and the Eastern Orthodox Churches—thus easing centuries of deep conflict and rift between east and west. But unlike 50 years ago, this time there was the participation of the representatives of other Christian Churches and denominations at the event, not only the Eastern Churches but also those belonging to the lineage of the Protestant Reformation. Also, the place of encounter was the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem which is the traditional location of the rock of the cross and the stone rolled away at the resurrection that is considered by many traditions as the foundation of the faith of all Christians.
For many observers, the very fact that the pope of Rome and the patriarch of Constantinople have been welcomed warmly into the basilica and have performed liturgy there, is a continuing sign of openness to the path of reconciliation which until today still remain arduous and obstacle-ridden. The basilica of the Holy Sepulchre is a mute witness to the historical divisions between and among Christian Faiths. On the basis of a “status quo” dating back to 1753 and the Ottoman empire, the ownership of this basilica is assigned to the Greek Orthodox patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land and the Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate. The Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopian Christians are allowed to perform their own liturgical services there, but observing meticulously the assignment of times and places.
While this arduous journey towards reconciliation among Christian Churches has profound historical impact and ecclesial significance, the political enmity among neighboring nations has been the hitch that has triggered wars and even terrorism to continental proportions. And the crux of the matter is deeply religious, too, between Islam and Judaism which started heating up politically in 1948 when Israel was declared a state and occupied a territory that was controlled by Muslim dynasties for more than 1,300 years.
It is in this backdrop that Pope Francis invited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to pray together at the Vatican for peace between their nations. He never minced words when he addressed the Palestinian authorities: “The time has come for everyone to find the courage to be generous and creative in the service of the common good, the courage to forge a peace which rests on the acknowledgment by all of the right of two States to exist and to live in peace and security within international recognized borders.”
He urged both Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stay on the “path of dialogue, reconciliation and peace” because “there is simply no other way.”