A pope, a rabbi, and a Muslim sheik walk into a bar. Guy looks up from his beer and says, “What is this? A joke?” Well, no. But exactly that trio can make history this weekend.
Pope Francis is going to the Holy Land. In what a Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, called “an absolute novelty,” the pope will be accompanied by two old confreres from Argentina — Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Sheik Omar Abbud, with whom, over his years as archbishop of Buenos Aires, the pope “cultivated dialogue and friendship.” Such friendship trumped concerns that local religious figures in the Holy Land might feel slighted. The pope invited the rabbi and the Muslim leader as companions to send, in Lombardi’s words, “an extremely strong and explicit signal” about the urgency of inter-religious reconciliation. Francis’s stated purpose is “religious,” yet in the Middle East religion and politics are twinned. The rabbi and the sheik palpably represent the pope’s double commitment to Israel and Palestine both, an approach some are bound to reject.
The papal itinerary includes the notable sites — the Jordan River, Nativity Square in Bethlehem, the Holy Sepulcher where Jesus died. A floral wreath will be laid at Mount Herzl, where the founder of Zionism is buried, and there will be a solemn visit to Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust memorial. The pope will greet Palestinian refugees from the Deheisheh refugee camp; meet the grand mufti of Jerusalem and the chief rabbi of Israel; confer with Palestinian and Israeli officials; and offer prayers with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, leader of the Orthodox faith. With Francis’s friends from Argentina at his side, “the whole trip,” in Lombardi’s words, will be an exercise in inter-religious peace-making.
One place on the papal itinerary stands apart, and what Francis does there will have subtle, but momentous significance. The Western Wall in old Jerusalem, constructed of massive limestone blocks, is a retaining wall for the elevated plateau known to Jews as the Temple Mount, and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. Beginning with Solomon 3,000 years ago, the Temple of Israel stood there, center of Hebrew worship and identity. The Western Wall is sacred to Jews as the last remnant of the glorious structure savagely destroyed by the Romans a generation after Jesus, stirring permanent grief in the Jewish heart.
But ancient Christians, separating from Jews, remembered the temple’s destruction as a vindication of their claims for Jesus, who was proclaimed “the new temple.” The Roman barbarity was regarded as an act of God. Across the centuries of Christian control of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount was deliberately left in ruins. Indeed, it served as the city’s garbage dump — a visible sign of Christian supremacy to Judaism.
But when Muslim forces took control of Jerusalem in 637, their leader, Caliph Umar, was offended by the Christian desecration of the Jewish Holy Place, and he ordered it restored. In other words, what would become the Muslim glorification of the Noble Sanctuary began as an act of respect for the holiness of Israel’s ancient tie to Jerusalem. Over the centuries, Muslims forgot that, with some contemporary Palestinians even denying that the Jewish temple was ever there. Jewish extremists, meanwhile, have sought to destroy the Islamic shrines, as have Christian millennialists. Again and again, the place ignited conflict among the three religions — never more than during the Crusades, when Latin Christians slaughtered Jews and Muslims alike in the sacred precincts. And always, the denigrated old temple symbolized for Christians the triumph of the new temple — Jesus.
That is why, in 2000, when Pope John Paul II wanted to express sorrow for the long history of Christian contempt for Jews, he went to the Western Wall, inserting the words of his apology into the crevice of the rough stones. He prayed without invoking Jesus. Few Christians understood the gesture’s significance, but many Jews did. No more denigrating the Temple of Israel. A papal prayer at the wall amounts to recognition that God’s covenant with the Jewish people stands.
Hence, it is essential that Pope Francis venerate the last remnant of the temple. It is not clear that his friends from Argentina will be right beside him, but if they are, the meaning of the act will be even more striking. That this holy place became a source of contention among Christians, Jews, and Muslims is a sacrilege — one that could be reversed if a pope, a rabbi, and a sheik visit there together.James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.