Should Pope Benedict visit Gaza? – A response to Deal Hudson

In February, a group of Palestinian Christians asked Pope Benedict XVI to call off his planned visit to Israel and the West Bank, concerned that his visit would “help boost Israel’s image and inadvertently minimize Palestinian suffering under Israeli occupation.” (Haaretz).

Adopting a different approach, Ma’an News Agency reports that a petition raised by the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, the University of San Francisco, and several other U.S. peace organizations asking Pope Benedict XVI to make a stop in the Gaza Strip has received over 2000 signatures.

In a recent post to, Deal Hudson raises the question: Should Benedict XVI Include Gaza in his Holy Land Visit? — answering in the affirmative:

[A]dding Gaza to the papal visit to the Holy Land would indeed send a message to all concerned, including Hamas, which some Christians fear was strengthened by the three-week Israeli offensive. Benedict XVI could visit Holy Family Parish in Gaza City, where Msgr. Manuel Musallam and his parishioners lived through the bombing that began on Dec. 28 and the ground invasion a week later on Jan. 3, 2009. Msgr. Musallam and his parish minister to the 200 Catholics remaining in Gaza (there are approximately another 3,000 Christians, most of whom are Greek Orthodox.)

The visit of Benedict XVI will be viewed by the Christians living in the Holy Land through the lens of 1417 deaths in Gaza, including 313 children, during the 22-day Israeli campaign. With the election of Benjamin Netanyahu, Christians in Bethlehem expressed fear that their city could become another Gaza. “We already live surrounded by walls and check points. Why shouldn’t we think that what happened in Gaza could happen to us?” said a young woman in her mid-twenties who comes from one of the oldest, and most prominent, Christian families in Bethlehem.

Palestinian Christians will be deeply disappointed and demoralized if Benedict XVI simply repeats the itinerary of John Paul II. “There will be bad consequences for the Church if he does this,” Abu Zuluf told me. He did not explain this comment, but when I asked an American priest who had lived near Bethlehem for over a decade he related it to a comment he heard from a Christian woman in Bethlehem. She said to him, “Tell the Holy Father not to lose his dignity when he comes here.”

Readers familiar with my opinions on the Israeli-Palestianian conflict (full disclosure: I maintain the blog Catholic Friends of Israel) will likely be surprised to note that I am in tentative agreement with Hudson: I think that a Papal visit to Gaza — taken as an expression of solidarity with the Christian communities there — may be a good thing.

This is not to say, however, that I have some concerns — both with Hudson’s reasons for taking the stance as he does, as well as issues involving the proposal itself.

Questionable Statistics

In citing the casualties from Israel’s campaign to prevent rocket attacks from Gaza, Hudson links to a Reuters article which in turn relies upon the findings of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. The numbers cited by this source have been heavily disputed by CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) and the official accounting of the IDF:

According to the data gathered by the Research Department of the Israel Defense Intelligence, there were 1166 names of Palestinians killed during Operation Cast Lead. 709 of them are identified as Hamas terror operatives, amongst them several from various other terror organizations. Furthermore, it has been found that 295 uninvolved Palestinians were killed during the operation, 89 of them under the age of 16, and 49 of them women. In addition, there are 162 names of men that have not yet been attributed to any organization.

It is disconcerting, then, that Hudson simply takes the Reuters’ / PCHR figures at face-value without any qualification.

“Harsh restrictions on movement”

According to Hudson, the problem with retracing the steps of Pope John Paul II is that the Holy Land has changed dramatically since 2000:

Ever since the uprising (Second Intifada) that followed the visit of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount in September 2000, the West Bank has been in a state of lock-down enforced by hundreds of miles of security walls, checkpoints, settlements, settler roads, and harsh restrictions on freedom of movement.

It is indeed lamentable that “Palestinian Christians have virtually no access to the holy sites in East Jerusalem, Galilee, and Nazareth”; that students in religious classes of Bethlehem University are routinely denied visas to travel outside the city, or that Gazan students are prevented from attending school in Bethlehem. Nonetheless, any moral evaluation of these admittedly-difficult conditions would have to take into account precisely WHY these “harsh restrictions on movement” are enforced — and that is a lengthy and complex discussion Hudson’s article does not go into.

For example, it is a fact that the Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal cited “freedom of movement for priests and religious between these regions is a primary pastoral concern” and declared: “it’s time to put an end to the Wall, the Checkpoints, it’s time for a Palestinian State, it’s time for an end to our problems with visa’s.” No doubt Hudson would concur.

But any discussion of the moral relevance of Israel’s Wall should take into account that approximately 75 percent of the suicide bombers who attacked targets inside Israel came from across the border where the first phase of the fence was built; that since construction of the fence began, the number of attacks has declined by more than 90%. The number of Israelis murdered and wounded has decreased by more than 70% and 85%.

During the 34 months from the beginning of the violence in September 2000 until the construction of the first continuous segment of the security fence at the end of July 2003, Samaria-based terrorists carried out 73 attacks in which 293 Israelis were killed and 1950 wounded. In the 11 months between the erection of the first segment at the beginning of August 2003 and the end of June 2004, only three attacks were successful, and all three occurred in the first half of 2003.

and that the leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad has admitted to the fence as an effective deterrent to suicide-bombing.

All of course, at the cost of “harsh restrictions on movement.”

Oppressed by Israel?

One aspect of the plight of Palestinian Christians is glaringly absent from Hudson’s latest article: the fact of the persecution of Arab Christians by Muslim extremists. Hudson relays the fears of a Christian resident of Bethlehem over the election of “right winger” Benjamin Netanyahu. But what might also be contributing to the precarious situation of Christians in Bethlehem? — An article in the UK’s Daily Mail in 2006 speaks of “the sense of a creeping Islamic fundamentalism” pervading the city:

[Bethlehem’s] Christian population has dwindled from more than 85 per cent in 1948 to 12 per cent of its 60,000 inhabitants in 2006.

There are reports of religious persecution, in the form of murders, beatings and land grabs.

Meanwhile, the breakdown in security is putting off tourists, leading to economic hardship for Christians, who own most of the town’s hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops. …

Bethlehem’s hotel owners estimate that tourist numbers have dropped sharply, from 91,276 each month for the millennium celebrations in 2000 to little more than 1,500 a month now.

During the past six years, 50 restaurants, 28 hotels and 240 souvenir shops have closed.

Samir Qumsieh is general manager of Al-Mahed – Nativity – which is the only Christian television station in Bethlehem.

He has had death threats and visits from armed men demanding three acres of his land – and he is now ready to leave.

“As Christians, we have no future here,” he says.

(See also: “Bethlehem Christians fear neighbors” Jerusalem Post 2007).

What is confusing is that Arab persecution of the Palestinian Christians is something of which Hudson is undoubtedly aware. In 2007, he blogged about this very issue, noting international human rights lawyer Justus Reid Weiner’s observation that

“The systematic persecution of Christian Arabs living in Palestinian areas is being met with nearly total silence by the international community, human rights activists, the media and NGOs.”

Hence the confusion over his latest article, presenting a one-sided picture of Israeli oppression.

On this topic, see Reid Weiner’s monograph: Human Rights of Christians in Palestinian Society [PDF — available also in book-format from].See also David Raab’s The Beleaguered Christians of The Palestinian-Controlled Areas (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2003).

Returning to the question of whether Pope Benedict XVI should visit Gaza, I think that — taken as an expression of solidarity with the Christian community — it may be a positive thing.

My concern would chiefly be one of security — to whom would be entrusted the security of the Pope? Is the controlling authority (Hamas) demonstrably reliable in ensuring the Pope’s safety? Or in cooperating with Israel in this regard?

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  1. Well- here is the problem I have with the case made by those American Catholics who pretty much toe the pro-Israel line in these type of discussions. The 800 lb. gorilla in the room is the Palestinian Catholic and Christian community point-of-view. This is the point-of-view I champion because first- these are my brothers and sisters in Christ- many American Catholics act as if the mostly secular Jews of America and Israel are their spiritual soul mates- this smacks of the distorted theology of fundamentalist Christian Zionism.

    Secondly, I took up the challenge of coming to a position on events in Israel-Palestine, by going to live in Galilee with a Palestinian priest who started a school for children- Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim. I spent about 3 months in this community, and travelled with some of the high school studentsand teachers around the region. The history teacher kept pointing out where former Palestinian villages were destroyed or taken over by Israelis and given new names and new residents. The bitterness was palpable. I also was offered work as a teacher for U.S. AID, in Hebron, West Bank- I went to scout it out and found a nightmare. About 500 Jewish settlers took over some buildings in the downtown of a town of around 100,000 Palestinians lived. They were supported and protected by the Israeli military- they even have holidays where the Jews are allowed to march down the streets shouting racist tripe while the military keeps the Arabs off the streets at gunpoint- sounds like something American Catholics should be rallying against, not supporting to the hilt. Needless to say I turned down the job because I felt that I would be a legitimate target for Arab violence, representing the U.S. government who sponsers and supports Israel like it was a U.S. state, not a foreign country.

    I really just don’t get how American Catholics can so easily overlook the obvious best source of information on the Israel-Palestine conflict- the local Catholic community. I suspect it is because most Americans go to the Holy Land as tourists seeking personal spiritual fulfillment, not as comprehensive truth seekers. And of course, American Catholic poll just the same as all other Americans on every major issue, seemingly, so it is apparent that most are not doing much homework to dig into Holy See viewpoints, let along the Holy Land’s Catholic Hierarchical views. And so, the AIPAC/CAMERA narrative wins the propaganda war, dominating both major parties, all the major media, and with strong footholds in Christian Zionist and conservative Catholic niches, it is a slam-dunk for Israel, All-Israel- all the time. The Palestinians are ignored during long stretches of relative non-violent resistance- with no attention given to the checkpoints, the land and resource grabs by extremist Zionist settlers until some Palestinian resistance turns violent, then the idea that Palestinian lives are anywhere equal to an Israeli life is completely rejected- the Palestinian civilians are not even equal to an Israeli military personnel- any attack from the Palestinian side is terrorism no matter the target, and the Israelis can indulge in assassinations of Palestinian leaders and attack civilian centers and call it unfortunate collateral damage. It is all such a sham.

    The only way to see this dark story more clearly is to actually listen and learn from the one community in the area that should be our natural go-to partner- the Palestinian Catholics. That’s what I did, and that is the basis for my confidence in my own position- and because I made it personal by staying with actual Palestinians, and actual Israelis, I don’t have any truck with the propagandists and those with anti-Arab prejudices, and see Islam only through the lens of 9-11- Where have you been? I will take every opportunity to defend the Catholic community in the Holy Land- it seems that the American Catholic community is bent on a self-fulfilling prophesy that pits Palestinian Muslims in a holy war against Palestinian Christians- that may end up happening thanks to U.S. and Israeli power politics, but it will be mostly on the souls of Americans and Israeli apologists- I am convert to Catholicism, so maybe I’m missing something- I thought that it was the first responsibility of the Pope to help nurture and cultivate the seeds of the Church, the small oppressed Catholic communities- I would think the Holy Land Catholics would qualify- but it seems the interest in their plight- like that of Iraqi Christians, is really not a high priority for the American Catholic community- I, for one, won’t just sit on my hands fearing the accusation of anti-Semite. I will stand with the forces within the Jewish community, I know that Jews are very much conflicted about the politics of Israel, just as patriotic Americans are very much conflicted over American wars and foreign policies- for very good reason.

  2. Tim,

    I’d agree that it’s important to listen to the voices of local Christian populations, but it can hardly be the only factor. The obvious counter-example would be the situation ten years ago in Bosnia, where the US intervened against Milosevic and the local Christian populations in one of the very few US military actions in the last 30 years which the Vatican specifically endorsed the justice of.

    Yet having been in Greece at the time I can assure you that the local Christian (Orthodox) populations were absolutely livid, and thought that the Bosnian Muslims had simply been getting what they deserved. Being Christian does not save one from having one’s viewpoints poisoned by nationalism.

  3. It also has to be said that Palestinian Christians will collaborate with whatever terrorist regime they have to, even their own persecutors, if they believe it will redound to their material benefit.

    It’s the same for our Catholic brothers in Iraq. They spend decades actively collaborating in Saddam’s genocidal regime, putting their stomachs before their souls, and then they’re shocked, SHOCKED!, that once that government is toppled their Church is revealed to be decrepit, irrelevant, and dwindling.

    If Palestinian Christians are oh-so concerned about the dwindling nature of their communities, they have none but themselves to blame. Arab Catholics, and their leaders, are ALWAYS going out of their way to protest how strong they DISCOURAGE conversions and REFUSE to evangelize their Muslim neighbors. Bishop Hinder of Saudi Arabia and Patriarch Delly of Babylon are two major examples of prelates who publicly and explicitly dissent from Christ’s Great Commission, and I read interviews ALL THE TIME from Christian leaders (mostly Catholics!) in Muslim countries who say all they want are Muslims to be better Muslims, that they TURN AWAY people who come to them asking for baptism.

    There’s also the issue of long-standing anti-Semitism, some Christian and some Islamic, which Arab Christians by and large have failed to shake off in the years since Vatican II.

    I don’t do tribal politics, and neither I suspect does Mr. Blosser. A cause is not just and right, and neither is a perspective accurate, just because it happens to be embraced by someone who calls themselves Catholic. Palestinian Catholics are wrong to embrace Hamas and Fatah, just as American Catholics were wrong to embrace Barack Obama and the Democrat Party. Blind tribal politics are for the uninformed and the ignorant, and to pretend that Palestinian Christians do not act out of base, selfish motives, and even out of a kind of cultural Stockholm syndrome, is VERY naive.

    Shame on Dr. Hudson for his LATEST hackjob report on Arab Christianity, failing to take even the smallest steps toward reporting in an objective and balanced manner. We are all dhimmis now.

  4. Agreed on the point that the local Catholic community is not to be the only point of reference- but the problem here in the U.S. is that I hear almost no mention of the Palestinian Catholic viewpoint on this important U.S. foreign policy concern. I found that having a view from the ground of the Holy Land really helped me to get some clarity- no one in their right mind wants to risk being labeled anti-Semite- and since I grew up in a suburb that was heavily Jewish, I didn’t want to offend people I grew up with, and a really close Czech Jewish friend who I spent a great deal of time with during my year’s stay in Czech. But all of the evidence from my stay with Palestinian Catholics, and also a couple of weeks with an American married to a Russian Jewish emigrant- combined with a lot of reading from multiple perspectives- led me to see a convergence of evidences- as is the path to our certainties as taught by Father Dubay.

    I just wanted to point out that we should be doing all we can to get the perspective of brother/sister Catholics whenever there is a big conflict going on where we are neck-deep with our tax monies and powers of state and commerce- I don’t want anything to do with supporting the oppression of Catholics anywhere in the world- we must be extra-aware, and extra-cautious.

  5. Mr. Shipe:

    It’s Islamdom which is oppressing our Catholic brothers and sisters, both directly and indirectly. Everybody would live happily ever after if only Palestine would accept a two-state solution and stop behaving like savage barbarians. It really is THAT simple.

  6. Benedict XVI simply repeats the itinerary of John Paul II. “There will be bad consequences for the Church if he does this,” Abu Zuluf told me.

    This smacks of Stockholm Syndrome, and might at least partly explain the attitude of many Palestinian Christians. They are powerless against the Islamo-fascists who couldn’t care less about world opinion, so they seek to turn world opinion against the Israeli’s, essentially trying to ransom themselves by spreading their tormentors propaganda.


    many American Catholics act as if the mostly secular Jews of America and Israel are their spiritual soul mates- this smacks of the distorted theology of fundamentalist Christian Zionism.

    Can you tell me where you read this in the above posting? This is not responsive in any way to the posting, it’s simply a liberal talking point.

    The history teacher kept pointing out where former Palestinian villages were destroyed or taken over by Israelis and given new names and new residents.

    Did he point out any places where Jewish villages were destroyed or taken over by Arabs? Just curious, it seems you’re only interested in one side of the story.

    I felt that I would be a legitimate target for Arab violence,

    Sounds like you suffered from a little Stockholm Syndrom yourself. It seems to me that unarmed civilian workers sent to AID THE PALESTINIANS are not “legitimate targets” by Catholic doctrine.

    the Palestinian civilians are not even equal to an Israeli military personnel- any attack from the Palestinian side is terrorism no matter the target, and the Israelis can indulge in assassinations of Palestinian leaders and attack civilian centers and call it unfortunate collateral damage

    Since Palestinian attacks rarely successfully target Israeli military personnel, they’re successful attacks are overwhelmingly terrorist in nature. When they are successful in killing Israeli troops it’s usually at a border crossing. Interesting, the very place where IDF is vulnerable is the place that they allow goods to travel into the Palestinian territories… Do you think Israel provides for these goods to benefit some Zionist goal? It would certainly be safer for the IDF to simply wall them up permanently. Remember these attacks are the work of the legitimate government of Gaza, they can’t be blamed on some isolated group of extremists.

    This argument is getting tired. If Israel was bent on genocide they would simply get it done, nobody doubts their ability to make a clean sweep. Does anybody doubt that if Hamas had the power to do a clean sweep of Jews from all Israel/Palestine it would wait 1 hour before doing so? Try and look at things more objectively.

  7. I strongly agree with both Matt and Lex. Might does not automatically make right, but that does not mean the weaker party automatically has moral superiority. If the Palestinians laid down their arms, they would have peace – and their own state. If the Israelis laid down their arms, they would perish.

    The Hamas charter specifically calls for the destruction of Israel. The Palestinians, and the Arab world in general, have stated openly time and time again that their ultimate goal is to drive the Jews into the sea. Why is it so hard for so many people to take them at their own word?

  8. A good article here as to how Palestinian Christians are often treated by Palestinian Muslims.

    Blaming Israel for the plight of Palestian Christians ignores the simple fact that native Christians are usually treated as third class citizens throughout the Arab world. The best assistance that native Christians in a majority Arab muslim culture can receive from their fellow Christians in the West is a one way ticket to the West. 35% of Palestinian Christians have emigrated in the past four decades. They are the fortunate ones.

  9. If the Israelis suddenly left life wouldn’t be any better for the Arab Christians. Indeed, the Palestininas would just have more time to persecute them.

  10. The Holy Father doesn’t need to go to Gaza. A symbolic gesture of solidarity such as allowing a little Catholic child from Gaza to visit the Pope in the Holy Land would suffice. The persecuted and suffering members of the Church Militant are spread throught the world, not always telvised and without lobby groups, from the gang-infested barrios of East LA to the terrorist-infested slums of Southern Philippines.

  11. I actually live in Israel and work as an interfaith represenative in Haifa. Most Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Israel live together in peace. Most people on both sides of the border have been unfairly stereotyped. The Pope should have the right to go anywhere that he chooses without the political hot air getting in the way. His visit could help promote peace; but I did not know that he represents the United Nations? He is the leader of The Catolic Church

  12. How can Catholics of the world show such utter disdain for the brave Catholics of Palestine? They’re suffering terribly from the failed state they’re living in (including attacks from their traumatised neighbours). But they’re trying to hang on, trying not to be forced from their homeland by the occupation. The Catholic father in Gaza, running his mixed school, is Manuel Musallam, a courageous man indeed. If he ever leaves his flock, Israel has told him he’ll never be able to get back in. He goes months with no visitors able to come and see him. Shame on the Pope for deserting a man of the cloth in such need!

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