Contrary to reports in the mainstream press, Pope Francis did not call Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas “an angel of peace.” The correct translation of the pope’s words is “I have thought of you: that you could be an angel of peace.”
Why, then, was it so easy to believe the initial reports? Perhaps because the initial reports seemed to align with previous papal overtures to Palestinian leaders. Pope Francis had previously called Abbas a “man of peace,” he has shown sympathy for Palestinian grievances, and other popes have given the appearance of lending legitimacy to the Palestinian cause. For example, Pope John Paul II is reported to have received PLO leader Yasser Arafat on twelve different occasions.
Arafat was a terrorist. One would think that the Vatican would have wanted to limit its contacts with him. The same goes for Abbas. He has repeatedly honored and praised Palestinian “martyrs” who have slaughtered innocent Jews. There is evidence that he helped fund the 1972 operation that killed eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games. Why is he accorded such a cordial reception at the Vatican?
Although the Church has often declared its spiritual bond with Jews, it has had a less harmonious relationship with the nation where approximately half the world’s Jews now reside. The Vatican was the last Western government to accord diplomatic recognition to the State of Israel (in 1993). In addition, on several occasions, prominent prelates have likened Israel to King Herod, the murderer of innocents; and others have accused Israel of being an apartheid state. Meanwhile, Catholic NGOs such as Pax Christi and Trocaire have been major players in the boycott, divest, and sanctions campaign against Israel.
Of course, the BDS campaign directly impinges on Israeli security. So do the calls by numerous Christian leaders to tear down the security barrier that divides Israel from the West Bank. On his trip to the Holy Land a year ago, Pope Francis allowed himself to be photographed in prayer at a section of the wall where a large graffiti message compared Bethlehem to the Warsaw Ghetto. In a naïve gesture of solidarity with Palestinians, the pope was unwittingly lending credence to the idea that the Israelis could be compared to the Nazi occupiers of Poland.
The wall was constructed to prevent suicide attacks against Israeli citizens. It’s estimated that its construction has saved thousands of lives. To suggest that the wall is offensive, as many Christians have done, is to suggest that Jewish lives don’t matter. Moreover, such judgments betray an entirely lopsided view of the situation. Take the Gaza conflict. The Catholic hierarchy typically had little to say about the daily rocket barrages launched against Israeli citizens from Gaza, but it was quick to condemn Israel on those occasions when it finally retaliated. In a similar vein, Fouad Twal, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, blamed last year’s Gaza war on the Israeli embargo which, he said, had turned Gaza into “a factory of desperate people, designed to easily turn into extremists.”
In short, many Catholic leaders have shown a tendency to blame Israel for defending itself. The implication, of course, is that there would be no need for defense if Israel would only go to the peace table and make the concessions demanded of it by the Palestinians. The Vatican’s recent recognition of the “State of Palestine” reflects this naïve view of the situation. The supposition is that the Palestinians only want to be left in peace, whereas there is abundant evidence that the deepest desire of Palestinian leaders is for the extermination of Israel. Have Vatican officials never seen the photos of Abbas holding up a map of Palestine that encompasses all of the territory currently known as Israel? Are they unaware that he has personally called for a Palestine that is Judenrein? Didn’t they notice that when Israel gambled on disengaging from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Gaza soon turned into a terrorist state governed by an obsession to destroy Israel?
From the Israeli point of view, the call to cooperate with the Palestinian “peace” agenda is a call to cooperate in its own demise. Whenever I hear a UN representative or a Vatican spokesman call for peace talks between Israel and Palestine, I think of that scene from Goldfinger in which James Bond is about to be sliced in two by a laser beam. “Do you expect me to talk?” he asks. “No, Mr. Bond,” replies Goldfinger, “I expect you to die.” The Vatican hasn’t yet grasped the point that the Palestinian leadership doesn’t want the Israelis to talk, it wants them to die.
By words and by actions, the Vatican continues to suggest that there is a moral equivalence between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. This policy not only does a disservice to Jews, it also does a disservice to Catholics and other Christians. The main effect of the moral equivalence stance is to sow confusion among Catholics at a time when they need to be clear and unconfused—clear about Islam, that is. The Vatican policy toward Palestine reflects it overall stance toward the Islamic world. In other words, let’s overlook the dark side—the terrorism, the anti-Semitism, the oppression of Christians and other minorities—and let’s put the best face on the Mohammedan faith. For the sake of peace. And also for the sake of maintaining the threadbare narrative that Islam is a close cousin of Catholicism and, therefore, a religion of peace. Perhaps the ultimate expression of this faith in Islam was Pope Francis’ assertion in Evangelii Gaudium that “authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence.”
How well has this policy worked? Not very. Catholics and other Christians who lived in Muslim lands and who took seriously the Catholic version of “this has nothing to do with Islam” soon found that the tiny minority of misunderstanders were legion and had murder on their minds. Many found out too late. Years of indoctrination in the myth of Islam’s pacific nature had left them unprepared for the violence. Not that the Church was the only culprit. The secular opinion-makers had been preaching the same gospel. The irony is that the Church wants Israel to adopt the same policy of make-believe about Islam that has contributed to the death and displacement of millions of Christians.The policy requires an almost total denial of facts. In the case of the Arab-Israeli crisis it means ignoring the terrorist ties of the Palestinian government, its unity coalition with Hamas, the massive state-sponsored indoctrination of Palestinian children, and the oft-stated goal of eliminating Israel. Ironically, it also necessitates that one ignore the ongoing persecution of Christians in the Palestinian territories.
The Palestinian leaders do a good job of hijacking Christian themes and imagery in order to gull Christians into thinking that they are, indeed, brothers in Christ. Thus, Palestinians have milked the massacre-of-the-innocents meme for all its worth. They also like to claim that Jesus was the first Palestinian. Another favorite theme is that the Palestinian people are the “new Jesus” who is being crucified by the Israelis.
Many in the Catholic hierarchy seem to fall for the ruse, but the steady exodus of Christians from the Palestinian territories tells a different story. The overall population of Christians in the Palestinian areas has declined from 15 percent in 1950 to 2 percent today. After the Palestinian Authority took control over Bethlehem in 1995, the Christian population there declined by half. In the Gaza Strip, only a few hundred Christians remain. That’s because Christians in Palestine, like Christians in most Muslim-majority societies, are treated as second-class citizens—subject to rape, intimidation, and legalized theft.
Meanwhile, the Christian population of Israel continues to grow. Palestinian Christians want to live there and so do persecuted Christians in other parts of the Middle East. Despite years of propaganda to the contrary, they have come to realize that Israel is a safe haven in a world of Islamic chaos.
Do Christians who migrate to Israel know something that the Vatican doesn’t know? The facts are there for everyone to see, but not everyone sees them. Why do Catholic leaders persist in assigning moral equivalence when there is no moral equivalence? Normally, a belief in moral equivalence grows out of a relativistic outlook. But presumably we can rule that out in the case of Catholic prelates. A more likely cause of their moral neutrality is a misapplication of the principle of “judge not.” Christians today are highly conscious of the sins of Western civilization and are therefore reluctant to judge those who lie outside it—in this case, Muslims. However, the principle is meant to apply to judgments about the state of an individual’s soul, not his behavior. And it was never meant to apply to withholding judgments about ideologies and belief systems.
The reluctance to see the mote in the other’s eye can eventually slide over into willful blindness. There are numerous warnings in the New Testament about spiritual blindness and they apply to those within the Church as well as to those without. The big danger for Church leaders is not that they will be seen as judgmental in the eyes of the world, but that they will be seen as foolishly naïve in the eyes of history.
“First comes Saturday, then comes Sunday” is a well-known slogan in the Middle East. It means that after the Islamists finish with the Jews, they will come after the Christians. The fate of the Saturday people and the Sunday people is intertwined. And the fate of both is put in jeopardy when Christian leaders insist on holding on to a fantasy-based picture of Islam.
William Kilpatrick is the author of Christianity, Islam, and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West. Visit his website, turningpointproject.com, for more about his work and writings.