Photo: (REUTERS/Tony Gentile)
The blogosphere is abuzz with the news that the Pope walked out on a sheikh delivering an anti-Israel diatribe at meeting devoted to leaders in inter-religious dialog and peace work in Jerusalem yesterday (May 11).
I was there, and it didn't quite seem the way being reported to me.
There were about 350 people present, representing about 100 organizations involved in various kinds of inter-religious work in the Holy Land. I was there as a representative of Rabbis for Human Rights, on whose board I serve, along with Rabbi Arik Ascherman our director, and his wife Rabbi Einat Ramon of the Schechter Institute, and Quamar Mishirqi-Asad, one of our Israeli Arab staff members (RHR's Legal Director, and a Catholic). I was pleased that besides my colleagues from RHR, there were a lot of people I knew there including Rabbi David Rosen of the Interreligious Affairs Department of the American Jewish Committee, Dr. Yehuda Stolov of the Interfaith Encounter Association, YIzhar Hess and Rabbi Barry Schlesinger of the Masorti Movement, Rabbi Chaim Cohen (who is also on the RHR board, but I think was representing another organization), Rabbi Michael Klein-Katz, as well as Brother Franz from the monastery at Emmaus.
As reported in the Jerusalem Post, and picked up in numerous places such as catholic.org and Gateway Pundit, Sheikh Taysir al-Tamimi, chief Islamic judge of the Palestinian Authority, delivered a rant at the gathering at the Notre Dame center in Jerusalem.
I don't speak Arabic — and I presume the Pope doesn't either — so at the time all I could tell was that the Sheikh was very animated. At one point whatever he said received some modest applause from the Arabic-speaking crowd. According to the J Post report, here's what he was saying:
In an impromptu speech, delivered in Arabic at the Notre Dame Pontifical Institute in Jerusalem, Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi, chief Islamic judge in the Palestinian Authority, launched a 10-minute tirade against the State of Israel for confiscating Palestinians' land and carrying out war crimes against the residents of Gaza.
He also called for the immediate return of all Palestinian refugees, and called on Christians and Muslims to unite against Israel.
The reports are headlined "Sheikh attacks Israel, Pope walks out." While the sheikh was delivering his rant, one of the officials tried, unsuccesfully, to stop him a couple of times. The Pope, like most of the rest of us, just sat there — I presume he had no more idea than I did what the sheikh was saying. When the sheikh finished the Pope shook his hand and left. According to the reports, this was before the official end of the program. But I have to say, it certainly did not feel like the Pope was walking out on the speech — he sat there until the speech was over.
I'm sort of pleased that the "spin" being put on it is that the Pope walked out on him, because it certainly would have been a good thing for the Pope to walk out on something like that. I don't know if the Pope would have walked out in the middle of it if he knew what the man was saying. The Pope did not come back and say anything else afterwards.
Speaking of which, so what about the words of the Pope?
No offense to His Holiness, but the Pope is not the most dynamic speaker I've ever heard. He read his remarks, clearly staying close to the text, in clear, understandable English with a fairly heavy German accent. The text of the Pope's speech is available here.
However, two things I especially like about his speech. His quoting from my bar mitzvah parsha, Lech Lecha, at the beginning: "God said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your kindred and your father’s house for a land I shall show you." And I liked his concluding words, which really caught the purpose of the gathering:
Friends, the institutions and groups that you represent engage in inter-religious dialogue and the promotion of cultural initiatives at a wide range of levels. From academic institutions – and here I wish to make special mention of the outstanding achievements of Bethlehem University – to bereaved parents groups, from initiatives through music and the arts to the courageous example of ordinary mothers and fathers, from formal dialogue groups to charitable organizations, you daily demonstrate your belief that our duty before God is expressed not only in our worship but also in our love and concern for society, for culture, for our world and for all who live in this land. Some would have us believe that our differences are necessarily a cause of division and thus at most to be tolerated. A few even maintain that our voices should simply be silenced. But we know that our differences need never be misrepresented as an inevitable source of friction or tension either between ourselves or in society at large. Rather, they provide a wonderful opportunity for people of different religions to live together in profound respect, esteem and appreciation, encouraging one another in the ways of God. Prompted by the Almighty and enlightened by his truth, may you continue to step forward with courage, respecting all that differentiates us and promoting all that unites us as creatures blessed with the desire to bring hope to our communities and world. May God guide us along this path!
The important thing for me was not so much the words of the Pope as the fact that he called the gathering together, he gave some of his precious time to this group of 350 people working for interfaith dialog and peace, in order to encourage our work and our efforts. It certainly doesn't hurt to have the spiritual leader of a billion Catholics on your side!