Many were startled by Pope John Paul II’s neglect to respond to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s anti-Semitic calumnies the other day in the presence of the pontiff. But it would be a mistake to focus on the non-reaction of a elderly and obviously overtaken man who may not even have heard or understood what Bashar was saying. The real concern is what the event said of the currently hot topics of interreligious activity and ecumenicism.
Papal visits are not slapdash events with haphazard socializing and spontaneous shmoozing. They are carefully planned and well-orchestrated affairs. Thus, the Pope’s own remarks to his Syrian hosts meticulously reflected the well-honed Vatican Mideast policy, complete with pro-Palestinian buzz words:
As I have publicly stated on other occasions, it is time to ‘return to the principles of international legality: the banning of the acquisition of territory by force, the right of peoples to self-determination, respect for the resolutions of the United Nations Organization and the Geneva conventions, to quote only the most important.’
And after all, the Pope was to be in Syria, the guest of someone who only recently characterized Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as worse than what the Nazis did to the Jews and opined that the Jews deserved what they got. So the Pope’s advisers had to have anticipated that Bashar was going to seize the opportunity to once again savage Israel and the Jews.
Yet there was no response prepared! Moreover, there has been nothing said by the Vatican since the incident. To be sure, there are some who have said, despite the Pope’s political presentation, that the Pope and the Vatican are simply above getting enmeshed in local disputations, and the silence is simply a matter of taking the high road. But we are not buying that.
To put the matter in perspective, here is part of what Bashar had to say to the Pope:
As head of the Holy See in Rome, Your Holiness embodies the summit of responsibility for maintaining those values, especially that there are those who invariably attempt to subject all people once and again to the journey of ailments and agony. Therefore, our brethren in Palestine are being murdered and tortured, justice is being violated, and as a result territories in Lebanon, the Golan and Palestine have been occupied by those who even killed the principle of equality when they claimed that [G-d] created a people distinguished above all other peoples. We notice them aggressing against Moslem and Christian Holy sites in Palestine, violating the sanctity of the Holy Mosque (Al Aqsa), of the Church of the Sepulchre in Jerusalem and of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. They try to kill all the principles of divine faiths with the same mentality of betraying Jesus Christ and torturing him, and in the same way that they tried to commit treachery against the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him).
This is not the kind of diatribe that can be left unremarked without signalling purposeful silence. And the silence, we think, says more about what the Christian world thinks about the Jewish people than all of the pious and earnest sounding absolutions and outreach.