Press Column

Pope John Paul II inspires awe even in people like me. His trip to Greece and Syria, in its mixture of courage and showmanship, is quite unparalleled. Showmanship isn’t the exact word but I’m not sure there’s a better one. He can turn public occasions into giant works of drama. The Daily Telegraph alone of British papers put his visit to the Ummayad mosque in Damascus on its front page. If European civilisation means anything still, this was one of the most extraordinary moments in its history; curious that it should be the paper most hostile to modern Europe that noticed it properly. There was also a leader: "A Greek Orthodox priest in Athens describes John Paul as ‘the root of all evil’. Yet the Pope continues his pilgrimages, forever trying to push back historical barriers.

"Contrast that aspiration with the attitude of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who used the papal welcoming ceremony on Saturday to give renewed expression to his virulent anti-Semitism and will today seek to exploit for the same purpose his guest's visit to Quneitra." According the Telegraph, Quneitra was shelled by the Israeli army in the 1973 war; according to the Guardian, "Quneitra was the most symbolic stop on his itinerary. The town was occupied by Israeli forces in 1967 and destroyed during their withdrawal, seven years later." Both accounts might describe the same facts but it is obvious they are telling a different story. Either way, everyone agrees it has been kept in ruins, as a piece of propaganda, or of theatre, by the Syrians ever since. Certainly, when you look at Syrian coverage of the visit, you see — as the Financial Times made clear — the message of the Pope’s visit was entirely different, especially as it was conveyed by the local Christians. The official news agency quoted the Orthodox Patriarch Gregory III as telling the Pope: "we are raising our youths on the national and ecclesiastical values and we are working for the restoration of our occupied land under the leadership of President Bashar Al Asad."

Still according to the Syrians, the Pope told the young Christians that "Your country is marked by fellowship between all parts of society and I highly esteem this fraternal and peaceful fellowship and I express my hope that every one will feel part of the community and be able make their own contribution, in freedom, to the common good", the Pope said. One might wonder why he feels it necessary to hope for something which must by definition be abundant in a society "marked by fellowship between all parts of society", but it would probably be unwise to do so out loud in Syria.

The Syrian agency report did not quote the passages I found most interesting in the Vatican’s translation of his speech: "Dear young people, I invite you today to proclaim Jesus Christ with courage and fidelity, above all to the young people of your generation. And not only to proclaim Jesus Christ, but also and even more importantly, to help others to see him. In seeing the way you live, your contemporaries ought to wonder what is your inspiration and the source of your joy. Then you can say to them: ‘Come and see’. The Church is counting on you to make Christ better known and better loved"

For the Jerusalem Post, the most notable feature of the visit was what President Assad said greeting the Pope: "We feel that in your prayers in which you recall the suffering of Jesus Christ, you will remember that there is a people in Lebanon, the Golan [Heights], and Palestine that is suffering from subjugation and persecution. We expect you to stand by them against the oppressors so that they could regain what was unjustly taken from them."

This seemed to the Post as well as to the Daily Telegraph (both owned by Conrad Black) to be an outrageously anti-semitic remark. But the Post, though not the Telegraph, went on to quote the Pope as saying that: "It is time to return to the principles of international legality; the banning of acquisition of territory by force, the right of peoples to self-determination, respect for the resolutions of the United Nations and the Geneva convention." This may not be anti-semitism; but it is certainly opposed to the policies of the Israeli government. That Assad and not the Pope should be condemned for it is a triumph of Papal diplomacy. It shows that he can make suggestions which would be rejected out of hand if they came from anyone else.

In the Middle East, the Catholic population takes no prominent part in the region’s wars. Things are different in his relations with the Orthodox elsewhere. The Greeks who denounce the Pope as the "arch-heretic" and "the root of all evil" are being hysterical of course. But they are very close to the wars between Serbia and Croatia, which were clearly fought between Catholics and Orthodox. What’s more, the Catholics won. The Pope’s apologies for the Fourth Crusade make sense only if you remember that much has happened in the last century to keep the memory of 1204 alive.

Still, there is less tension in the Ukraine, which he is due to visit next, to strengthen the Uniates in the West of the country, around Lviv (or Lwow to a Pole). According to Ukrainian television, monitored by the BBC, "Patriarch Alexei II of Moscow said that recently there has been an attempt to blow up an Orthodox church in Lviv. The Russian patriarch did not accuse anybody. He only said that there is tension between confessions."

The Uniate Cardinal Huzar "described accusations by the Russian church as provocation and slander. As to the church incident, he described it as settling of accounts between two Orthodox priests of the Kiev and Moscow patriarchates, who failed to divide St Volodymyr's Church in the Sykhiv district."

From Germany, the Guardian reported another defining moment in history: The Rev’d Stefan Heinze, of the Hanover Evangelical Youth Church, is to broadcast his services as text messages. One of those who has signed up to hr the wrd ths wy sd: "A sermon doesn’t have to last 20 minutes when a single succinct phrase might do the trick." Ah, yes. But which?

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