Farewell to the Pope

Shortly after Pope John Paul II announced that he was coming to Israel with the genesis of the new millennium in Spring 2000, our news agency received a memo from the PLO that the Pope was going to the United Nations refugee camp of Deheishe.

David Bedein,

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credit David Michael Cohen
The visit of Pope John Paul II in Israel will not be forgotten. Yet, not everything went smoothly.

Shortly after Pope John Paul II announced that he was coming to Israel with the genesis of the new millennium in Spring 2000, our news agency received a memo from the PLO that the Pope was going to the United Nations refugee camp of Deheishe. According to the memo, he was to endorse the "inalienable right" of Palestinian Arab refugees to repossess the homes and villages that they had lost in 1948, an act which would essentially dismember the modern state of Israel.

Our agency called the Vatican ambassador in Jerusalem, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, also known as the Papal Nuncio, to verify if it was the intention of the Pope to convey any such message. The Archbishop was clear in his response that this was not the message that the Pope intended to convey in Deheishe, and he asked to see what the PLO was communicating. I then went to see the Papal Nuncio at his suite on the Mount of Olives, overlooking all of the Old City of Jerusalem, and brought a selection of memos, press statements and posters that the PLO had issued to herald the arrival of the Pope.

The Papal Nuncio said that the Pope appreciated being warned in advance that the PLO was trying to put words in the mouth of the Pontiff, and handed our agency the precise text of what the Pope would say when he would arrive in Deheishe - a generalized call for all sides to honor the spirit of UN resolutions.

Following the Pope's visit to Jerusalem, the Papal Nuncio said that the Pontiff had expressed much interest in knowing more about the PLO operation in Israel, and asked for material about PLO education and PLO media. The intense interest of the Vatican in PLO intentions surpassed the involvement of the Israeli government and some of the better known Jewish organizations.

In late August 2000, following the breakdown of Israel-PLO talks at Camp David, our agency acquired the new schoolbooks of the Palestinian Authority, which were the first schoolbooks issued by the Palestinians, designated to replace the schoolbooks that had been issued by Jordan and Egypt. These new Palestinian schoolbooks were financed by Italy, Belgium, Holland and Finland, while the Palestinian schools themselves were built with funds from the US, Canada, the European Union and the Scandinavian countries. While the Palestinian Ministry of Education had always assured Israel that when the Palestinians would have their own schoolbooks, they would be harbingers of peace, the translations of the new schoolbooks* showed that they were filled with themes of anti-Semitism, non-recognition of Israel and the inculcation of the struggle to liberate all of Palestine.

Our news agency issued a news story about the new Palestinian schoolbooks, which was picked up by the major media, and we offered copies of the Palestinian schoolbooks to the Israeli government ministries and to all the diplomatic missions in Israel. Yet, when we brought the Palestinian schoolbooks to the Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs, he indicated no interest in taking a look at the books.

As I turned to leave the ministry, rather discouraged that highest officials of the Israeli government did not want to see the reality of Palestinian education, I received a call on my cell phone from Archbishop Sambi, the Papal Nuncio, saying that he was en route to Rome the next day. He had a clear message: "The Pope would like to see the new Palestinian schoolbooks. Could you bring the books to the Vatican office in Jerusalem?" Well, with the Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs showing no interest in the books, I brought the box of books intended for the Israeli government to the Vatican, for the Pope to peruse.

(En route, in the taxi to the Vatican office on the Mount of Olives, the Papal Nuncio told me by phone to reassure my children that he was really who he said he was. Since the Papal Nuncio was calling after hours, he had called my home and asked for me, introducing himself as the Pope's ambassador. My children thought that he was putting them on with a fake accent. Indeed, how many Orthodox Jewish children take telephone messages from the Vatican?)

The Papal Nuncio did take the new Palestinian schoolbooks to Rome, and the Vatican issued its own recommendations on the Palestinian schoolbooks, determining that they were virulently anti-Semitic. The Vatican asked the Italian government to not provide any further funds for the Palestinian Ministry of Education. Italy has not invested any money ever since in PA schoolbooks.

The spin of the Israeli government at the time was that there had been an improvement in the Palestinian schoolbooks, and the Anti Defamation League followed suit and dispatched a letter to Yasser Arafat to thank the PLO leader for the reported "improvements" in the Palestinian schoolbooks. The only problem was that the government of Israel and the ADL did not bother to do what the Pope did - read the new Palestinian schoolbooks for what they were.

So, there you have it. Pope John Paul II showed greater sensitivity to emerging anti-Semitism in the nascent Palestinian Authority than did the government of Israel or the ADL.

This was not the only time in the last years of the Pope's life that the Pontiff warned of emerging anti-Semitism in the PA.

In March, 2003, the Papal Nuncio in Jerusalem addressed a visiting US Congressional delegation and shared a warning from the Vatican that the new constitution prepared by the Palestinian Authority for the emerging Palestinian State was based on the most fundamentalist Islamic interpretation of the Shari'a law, which now rules Teheran and Mecca. The constitution, he said, allowed for no juridical status for Judaism or for Christianity - only a vague call for "tolerance" of monotheistic religions. I covered that presentation and asked for a copy of the new Palestinian constitution that had reached the Vatican, especially since its preparation was funded, in part, by grants from US AID.

The Papal Nuncio provided a copy of the constitution in Arabic and the chairman of the Palestinian Constitutional Committee, Nabil Sha'ath, confirmed its authenticity. We had the constitution translated and analyzed by Arabic-speaking journalists, and posted it on our web site. To this day, no Israeli or American government spokesman will comment on the warnings issued by the Vatican that the constitution for a future Palestinian state would create an anti-Semitic and anti-Christian entity.

Meanwhile, Pope John Paul II allowed the Vatican representatives in Jerusalem to provide a sympathetic ear for delegations of Christians and others who were persecuted by the new Palestinian Authority. He went so far as to intervene with Arafat to forestall the executions of Arafat's opponents.

On Friday, April 1st, 2005, while the Pope was lying in a terminal state in Rome, our news agency had a prescheduled meeting with the Papal Nuncio, to introduce a human rights lawyer to him and to discuss the fate of 51 Palestinian dissidents who had been placed on death row by the new Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen.

I hesitated to bother the Vatican at the time. However, the Papal Nuncio made it clear that the meeting should take place; human lives were at stake. And the scheduled 15-minute meeting lasted for an hour, so that the Pope's ambassador in Jerusalem could learn as much as possible about the fate of Abbas' sentenced opponents. That is what Pope John Paul II would have wanted - to not stand idly by the suffering of his fellow man.


What are the roots of the special sensitivity that Pope John Paul II demonstrated regarding the subject of anti-Semitism and to the suffering of people around the globe?

One theory may hold true. Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, a renowned professor of Jewish history, gave a speech at the time of Pope John Paul II's visit in Jerusalem and stated that a great gap existed in the biography of the Pope in Poland - from 1939 to 1944. It was when the young cleric lived in Poland, while three million Polish Jews were being systematically murdered in death camps and ghettoes that were nearby the home and church of the young cleric who would become the first Polish Pontiff.

Yes, the future Pope John Paul II saved some Jewish families. Yet, it is not clear if he was involved in any systematic rescue effort to save Polish Jewry. Perhaps this is why Pope John Paul II approached the Western Wall of what was the Jewish Holy Temple in Jerusalem and asked forgiveness from God and from the Jewish people for the suffering that the Jews had endured at the hands of other kinds of Christians.


* Translations of the new Palestinian schoolbooks can be found at www.edume.org.