What Pope Francis’ Trip to the Holy Land Could Mean for the Middle East

January 7, 2014

by Naseem Tarawnah

It’s official. Come May, Pope Francis will become the fourth pope to visit the Holy Land since biblical times. Fifty years ago, Pope Paul VI prompted the first Papal visit to the region, and went on to visit six continents to become the most travelled pope as of 1964. Three years later, the 1967 Israeli-Arab war happened. Pan Arabism slowly crumbled away and the rise of nationalism and Islamism gradually entrenched itself within our contemporary understanding of the region. Today, the region swings in pendulum fashion between the extreme forces of nationalist fervor on one end and religious zeal on the other.

Rest assured, the Pope’s visit will be, as most Papal visits to the region have become, a symbol of peace and togetherness. A quiet ‘love thy brother’ intervention in a region that has grown so absurdly intertwined, so politically incestuous, that the black and white nature of its conflicts has long hardened to cement gray. Rest assured, the visit, basked in the glaring heat of the international media’s spotlight, and entangled in the social nature of the Web, will be a subtle nod towards peace and calm in a region on fire. But put Jordan, Palestine, and Israel in the same sentence, have the Pope shaking hands with all three leaders, have him paying visits to various cherished religious centers of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism – and, well, things are going to get political. And that’s ok, because Pope Francis may just be what the doctor ordered for the region.

Since coming to power last March in the wake of Pope Benedict’s surprising resignation, Pope Francis has been on a whirlwind public relations tour. Leading by example, we’ve seen him: wash the feet of prisoners, kiss a disfigured man, take a boy with Down’s syndrome for a ride on the popemobile, chastise the Church for judging homosexuals, and leave witty Christmas voicemails for a group of nuns in Spain. He finished off his first year as TIME magazine’s Person of the Year, and even had right wing American conservatives lambast him for his critique of the global financial system. He’s the kind of Pope who is in touch enough with the modern world to tweet, and even stop to take a ‘selfie’ with tourists. Suffice to say, Pope Francis is a rising brand. And despite wielding significant power on the world stage, he is a brand that comes off as down-to-earth and likable, a fact that has seen him draw bigger crowds in an effect the media has dubbed “The Francis Effect”.

So what will his visit to the Holy Land mean to the Middle East? Judging by his few months at the head of the Catholic Church, the Pope seems set to take a more proactive role in the region, one that is unavoidably political. In August, he called Muslims “our brothers” during his Sunday blessing at the end of Ramadan, and said Christians and Muslims must work together to educate a new generation on mutual respect, saying that both worship the same God. He followed this with a letter to the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed Al Tayeb, highlighting the Vatican’s respect for Islam and calling for “mutual understanding between the world’s Christians and Muslims in order to build peace and justice.” It was a message from one religious leader to another, perhaps laced with political undertones in a country where the two religious populations have had a rocky relationship through the political waters of recent years. When it comes to Syria, Francis has been as vocal as any political leader. In September, he sent a letter to Vladamir Putin, who was playing host to the G20 summit at the time, claiming that military solutions to the conflict should be abandoned; a strategic message to both the US and its rhetoric of airstrikes at the time, and Russia, a key Damascus ally. The Pope’s calls for peace in Syria even elicited a letter from Bashar Al Asad last month, saying that “stopping terrorism requires having the countries which are involved in supporting the armed terrorist groups stop providing any sort of military, logistic, or training support, noting that this support was provided by some of Syria’s neighbors and other known countries in the Middle East and abroad.”

But aside from the hopeful energy the three-day Papal visit is likely to bring, the Pope Francis brand has something else to offer the region: a message of pragmatism and reform in a region where religion has swayed to the extreme and the political structures have sought to maintain the status quo through violence or manipulation

When it comes to the Holy Land trip itself, several key points stand out from its mere symbolism. First, it is set to take place on the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s historic visit to Jerusalem and his meeting with Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople, which famously resulted in the Catholic-Orthodox Joint Deceleration of 1965 that helped kick start the reconciliation between the churches of the East and West. This is not to say that the Pope’s trip will produce miracles when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, or that that we’ll suddenly see the resolution of the Syrian crisis, but bringing “The Francis Effect” to the table could help usher in a more optimistic atmosphere, and even act as a catalyst for what comes next.

But aside from the hopeful energy the three-day Papal visit is likely to bring, the Pope Francis brand has something else to offer the region: a message of pragmatism and reform in a region where religion has swayed to the extreme and the political structures have sought to maintain the status quo through violence or manipulation. Ultra nationalism, xenophobia, sectarianism, and religious extremism dominate the regional landscape, and while the Pope won’t be able to solve these head on, he does represent an alternative path; a path of moderation and reform. If his words and actions of the past few months are any indication, Pope Francis’s tenure at the Vatican already seems to be setting the groundwork for gradual, yet significant change within the Catholic Church, and that will be a reminder to the players of the region that traditionalist institutions can change with the times in order to not only survive, but grow. And that is the right message to send to the two groups that seem to command the regional stage: the religious extremists on the right and the ruling elites on the left. It is a message to Muslim leaders that religion must be fluid enough to withstand a constantly changing world, and a message to the ruling class that genuine reform does not necessitate the collapse of the institutions they hold dear. That message is, without a doubt, timely at this point in our region’s history. And as a Muslim and a Jordanian, I can only hope that message will resonate throughout the region; if not to the ruling parties, then perhaps to a younger generation, that has been clamoring for hope and change.