by William Kilpatrick
Christians in many parts of the Middle East and Africa face extermination at the hands of Muslims, yet many Christian leaders seem far more concerned over the transgressions, real and imagined, of Israel—the only safe place for Christians in the Middle East and the only Middle Eastern country where the Christian population is growing.
According to Giulio Meotti, an Italian journalist, Catholic leaders are no exception. In The Vatican Against Israel: J’Accuse, he makes the case that ever since the creation of the State of Israel, the Vatican has taken what is essentially a pro-Islamic/anti-Israel stance.
Meotti acknowledges that the Catholic Church has made great progress on the theological level in reconciling itself with Judaism, but he contends that this advancement is counterbalanced on the political level by policies and pronouncements that are hostile to the State of Israel.
Although the Israeli state was created in 1948, it was not accorded diplomatic recognition by the Vatican until 1993, making the Vatican the last Western government to do so. Meotti offers this and numerous other pieces of evidence to support his thesis that the Vatican’s attitude toward Israel has been governed by an anti-Zionist agenda. He further argues that the Vatican’s corresponding support for Islamic causes has contributed to the creation of a world that is increasingly unsafe for Jews and Christians alike.
Part of this anti-Zionist attitude, says Meotti, can be attributed to a residual anti-Semitism in the Church. Although the Second Vatican Council absolved the Jews of the charge of deicide, he believes that a not-negligible element within the Church leadership continues to regard the Jews as intrinsic enemies of Christianity. Meotti does not say that the majority of Catholic leaders are anti-Semitic, but he does believe that they have come under the influence of those who are.
The main culprits, as he sees it, are Middle Eastern bishops and patriarchs (Orthodox as well as Catholic). The Vatican, he says, relies heavily on their assessment of the situation in the Middle East and in the Arab world in general. Partly out of fear of retribution and partly out of genuine conviction, these Arab Christian leaders tend to parrot the Islamic party line, with the result that Vatican officials receive a biased version of events in the Middle East. For instance, after an al-Qaeda attack at a Catholic church in Baghdad, Gregorius III Laham, the Melkite Catholic Patriarch of the Church of Antioch, declared that terrorism against Christians had “nothing to do with Islam,” but was actually a “Zionist conspiracy against Islam.” In a similar vein, Michael Sabbah, the former Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem and a great admirer of Yasser Arafat, once said of the Jews, “We will send them away, just as we did to the Crusaders.” On another occasion, he accused Israel of inflicting “the sufferings of the Passion of Jesus on the Arab Christians.” His successor, Patriarch Fouad Twal, has said that “a democratic state can’t be also Jewish: you can’t have both democracy and Zionism.”
Some prelates have taken their antipathy toward Israel even further. Hilarion Capucci, the former Catholic Melkite Archbishop of Jerusalem, was “found guilty of smuggling arms and explosives for Fatah terrorists from Lebanon into Israel, exploiting his Vatican immunity.” Even after his release (the result of Vatican intervention), Capucci continued his pro-Palestinian activities, including a speech in Rome in 2002 at which he offered “Greetings to the sons of Intifada and to the martyrs who will go and fight…Intifada till victory.” In 2010, he participated in the provocative Gaza Flotilla to break the Israeli naval blockade. That piece of sea theater resulted in nine deaths and numerous injuries. However, according to Meotti, the Vatican never publicly condemned Capucci for his renewed activities, but instead promoted him to further appointments.
Meotti maintains that the pro-Palestinian/anti-Israeli rhetoric of the Arab Christian bishops has become a staple of Western clerics, both Catholic and non-Catholic. Their criticism, he says, falls into roughly three categories: 1) comparing Israeli policies to the Holocaust; 2) comparing Israeli to an apartheid state; 3) comparing the sufferings of the Palestinians to the sufferings of Christ.
Ever since the founding of the Jewish state, says Meotti, Catholics and other Christians have accused Israel of Nazi-like behavior toward the Palestinians. Thus, on May 7, 1949, the Vatican news agency Fides carried a story attacking Zionism as “the new Nazism.” Abbe Pierre, who is sometimes referred to as “the most famous French priest” and “a modern St. Francis,” declared that “the Jews, once victims, have become executioners.” The Vatican newspaper L`Osservatore Romano in a front-page article accused the Israelis of carrying out a campaign of “extermination.” In another piece, it spoke of “a precise strategy to annihilate people.” In 2007, two German bishops compared Ramallah to the Warsaw Ghetto. In the same year, a group of Irish bishops said that Israel had made the Gaza Strip “little more than a large prison.” In 2009, Cardinal Renato Martino compared Gaza to a “concentration camp.”
Another way to demonize Israel is to brand it as an apartheid state. In 2003, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray said that the Israeli security barrier “creates a geography of apartheid which provokes rather than controls violence.” In 2011, Barry Morgan, the Anglican Archbishop of Wales, said of the situation in Gaza that it “resembles the apartheid system in South Africa.” Most of the criticism centers on the Israeli security fence which, according to Britain’s senior archbishop, Vincent Nichols, has created a “tragic situation” for Palestinians, and which Cardinal Joachim Meisner, the archbishop of Cologne, likened to the Berlin Wall. In 2004, Pope John Paul II criticized the wall by saying “The Holy Land doesn’t need walls but bridges.” Despite the walls’ efficiency in stopping suicide attacks, it was criticized again in 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI, who said “it is tragic to see walls still being erected.” As Meotti points out, there are some fifty similar security walls and barriers throughout the world, but Israel’s is the only one that comes in for universal criticism. Meotti doesn’t mention it, but it may be relevant to the discussion to note that the Vatican itself is surrounded by a massive wall which in many places is considerably higher and thicker than the Israeli one.
Catholic and other Christian critics have not only maligned the Israelis as Nazis and segregationists, they have in a roundabout way brought back the charge that Jews are Christ-killers. Over the last two decades, says Meotti, Christian and Muslim Palestinians have collaborated to create a Palestinian Jesus or, rather, to cast the Palestinian people as the “new Jesus” who is being crucified by the Israelis. For example, each year during Christmas festivities in Bethlehem, first Arafat, then Mahmoud Abbas, have extolled Jesus as the “first Palestinian.” But the comparisons don’t stop there:
A Palestinian daily, “Intifada,” displayed on one-half of its front page a provocative caricature, showing a crucified young woman called “Palestine”—with blood flowing from her pierced hands and feet. A long spear transfixes her body to the cross, its protruding point embossed with a Star of David, and an American flag at the shaft end.
Rather than condemn this misappropriation of Christian symbolism, many Christians have elaborated on the theme. In Edinburgh, as part of an Easter celebration, St. John’s Episcopal Church “displayed a picture of a crucified Jesus in Mary’s arms, with both of them dressed as Palestinians” and an Israeli tank guarding the cross. Fr. Manuel Musallam, head of the Latin Church in Gaza, “compared the armed Palestinians in the Church of the Nativity to Jesus on the cross.” This was in reference to the invasion and desecration of the Bethlehem church in 2001 by Palestinian terrorists and the subsequent siege by Israeli troops.
When the Palestinians are not being compared to Christ on the cross, they are often cast in the role of the innocents massacred by King Herod, with the Israelis as Herod. For example, on the occasion of the war between Israel and Hamas, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, commented: “I think of the ‘massacre of the innocents.’ Children are dying in Gaza, their mothers’ shouts is a perennial cry, a universal cry.”
Children who are killed in war are surely innocents. But to suggest, as many Christians do, that the Palestinians as a whole are nothing but innocent victims is a stretch. It’s even more of a stretch to suggest that they are the new Jesus. Jesus didn’t recruit suicide bombers, arm his apostles with AK-47s, or fire missiles into Jewish villages and schoolyards on a daily basis. And when he gathered little children around him, it was not for the purpose of indoctrinating them in Jew hate. In an interview with the Catholic magazine, Famgilia Cristiana, William Shomali, the vicar-general of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, said that “in Israeli schools, love for the other is not taught, but rather the destruction of the other.” But this is pretty much the reverse of the truth. Has he never seen any of the numerous videos of Palestinian schoolchildren describing Jews as “apes and pigs” or reading poems about their desire to kill Jews? Does he not know about the Palestinian mothers who proudly proclaim the wish that their children grow up to be suicide bombers? In Palestine, the families of suicide bombers are given cash awards, and candy is passed out in the streets to celebrate the murder of Israeli civilians.
As described in Meotti’s book, many Catholic and Protestant clergy profess to stand in solidarity with the Palestinians and to support the Palestinian cause. But what exactly is the Palestinian cause? The charter of Hamas, the elected ruling party in Gaza, calls for the obliteration of Israel and rejects the idea of negotiated settlement since “there is no solution to the Palestinian problem except by jihad” (article 13). These aspirations seem to be widely shared. For instance, in January 2014, the government graduated 13,000 teens from what can only be called terrorist training camps. At the graduation ceremony, the Hamas prime minister took note of the female trainees who “oversee the training of young women to follow in the footsteps of the female suicide operatives.” There are numerous indications that Palestinian leaders, like Iranian leaders, are hell-bent on the destruction of Israel.
And after that? “First comes Saturday, then comes Sunday” is a popular saying among Islamists. It means that after the Jews are defeated, Christians will come next. There are many signs, however, that in Palestine, the Islamists are tired of waiting for the conquest of the difficult-to-destroy Saturday people and have already turned some of their wrath on the Sunday people.
Although Palestinian Muslims and their Arab Christian apologists claim that the suffering of Palestinian Christians is the fault of Israel, nothing could be further from the truth. According to Michael Curtis, Distinguished Professor-Emeritus of Political Science at Rutgers:
Christians have suffered direct harassment. They have been intimidated and maltreated; money has been extorted, land and property confiscated, and Christian women have been abused, raped, abducted, and been subjected to forced marriage. Attempts have been made to impose the Islamic women’s dress code on them…Christian holy sites have been disparaged or insulted…Theft of Christian land and property as well as desecration of Christian institutions and disparagement of the religion has occurred.
Palestinian Christians know that they have to speak out against the “Israeli occupation” or risk the consequences. But their steady exodus from the Palestinian territories is a better gauge of who the real oppressor is. The number of Christians in the Palestinian areas has dropped from 15 percent in 1950 to 2 percent today. After the Palestinian Authority took control over Bethlehem in 1995, the Christian population there declined by more than half. In Gaza, under Hamas, there are only a few hundred Christians left.
This is a common pattern across the Middle East and many parts of Africa. Christians in Muslim lands are being forced to flee or to convert. Yet many Catholic leaders still subscribe to the myopic view that somehow all these troubles will go away if only the Arab-Israeli conflict were resolved. There are no Jews to speak of in Iraq, but Christians are viciously persecuted nonetheless. Of the 1.5 million Christians who lived there in 2003, only 250,000 are left. Nearly half a million Christians have left Syria in the last three years, yet Jews make up only a negligible portion of the population. How about the persecution of Christians in Pakistan? Egypt? Nigeria? What does Zionism have to do with it? Likewise, is it just possible that the problems of Palestinian Christians have more to do with the religion of Islam than the religion of Judaism? Palestinian Christians may say otherwise, but what else are they supposed to say? With much less to risk, citizens of the U.S., the U.K., and most of Europe are extremely cautious about saying anything that might offend Islam.
The Vatican Against Israel is not without its faults. The book is marred by Meotti’s attempt to link the Vatican stance toward Israel with the Church’s supposed lack of concern for Jews during the Nazi period. He seems unfamiliar with the many efforts undertaken by the Vatican to rescue European Jews during the war years. Pope Pius XII, he says, turned a “blind eye” to the plight of the Jews and therefore “earned the title ‘Hitler’s Pope’.” No one, however, thought of Pius in that way at the time. In his book Disinformation, former Soviet spy chief Ion Mihai Pacepa convincingly demonstrates that the myth of “Hitler’s Pope” was the creation of Soviet intelligence—a deliberate post-war attempt to smear the reputation of the pope and thereby undermine Catholic resistance to communism. It’s one thing to say that Pius could have done more, but it’s completely untrue to suggest that he had any sympathy for Hitler.
Meotti also tends to assign the worst motives to Vatican actions and/or inaction vis-a-vis Israel. On the one hand he concedes that “Today there are very few leaders in the Vatican who consciously and publicly embrace anti-Semitism;” on the other hand, “I don’t really believe that Catholicism has changed its spots and put 1,700 years of anti-Semitism behind it.” Because of this and other intemperate remarks, many Catholics will be tempted to dismiss the book’s argument. One Catholic reviewer said his first response to “the many untrue and exaggerated statements is that people will see through it and ignore it as it deserves.” He then accuses Meotti of being “totally unaware of what the Holy Spirit has done in causing RC to repent of its former wrong attitude to the Jews.”
This particular reviewer supplements his review with eight pages of excerpts from Nostra Aetate, Verbum Domini, The Catechism of the Catholic Church, two apostolic exhortations, and other documents to prove that the Church has high regard for Jews and Judaism. But that misses the point. Although Meotti does venture into discussions of theological issues (such as replacement theology), his main contention is that the Vatican’s diplomatic response to events in the Middle East displays a bias against the State of Israel and for the Palestinians. Meotti’s musings over theological motivations are not very rigorous, but his factual case is not so easily dismissed. More or less the same case has been made against mainstream Protestant churches and some Evangelical groups. Mark Tooley, President of the Institute of Religion and Democracy, and others have presented detailed evidence that a significant segment of the Protestant leadership is engaged in an anti-Israel propaganda campaign aimed at delegitimizing the Israeli state. These Protestants employ the very same rhetoric that Meotti speaks of—the “apartheid wall,” “the new Nazis,” the “crucifixion of the Palestinians,” and the “massacre of the innocents.” In addition, many Protestant churches have instituted boycott and divestment drives against Israel (as Meotti points out, these BDS campaigns are also a favorite strategy of Catholic NGOs such as Pax Christi, Trocaire, and Cordaid).
Israel, which at one point is no wider than Manhattan is long, has been attacked five times by surrounding Arab states. It leads a precarious existence. It is inconsistent for Christian leaders to talk about their spiritual oneness with Jews, and then turn around and call for measures—sanctions, tearing down the security barrier, pulling back to pre-1967 borders– which would undermine the ability of Jews to defend themselves. Since approximately half of the world’s Jews live in Israel, it is understandable that some Jews might question the sincerity of Church leaders when they talk about “our beloved brothers” and “building bridges of lasting friendship.”
The above quotations are from Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic letter, Verbum Domini. Most Catholics who are familiar with the lives of Benedict and other recent popes will have no doubt that their concern for the Jews is genuine. The anti-Semitic label doesn’t stick. But popes and cardinals are not protected from misinterpreting political movements or, for that matter, religious ones. A common interpretation of Islamic terrorism—one shared by many world leaders—is that it is the result of poverty, or oppression, or colonialism, or—well, anything but the dictates of Islamic theology. For example, the U.S. State Department long resisted naming Boko Haram as a terrorist group and chose rather to attribute their activities to “poverty,” “inequality,” and “disenfranchisement.” And this despite the fact that Boko Haram’s stated aim is to rid Nigeria of infidels and to institute sharia law.
What unites Palestinian terrorists, Nigerian terrorists, Iraqi terrorists, Syrian terrorists, Afghani terrorists, Libyan terrorists, Somali terrorists, Filipino terrorists, and Thai terrorists is not a shared oppression, but a shared religion. In narrowly focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian situation and on the “oppression” and “humiliation” of the Palestinians, Church leaders seem to be missing a much larger picture. The problems that Christians and other “infidels” all over the world are now encountering are problems that would exist even if the state of Israel had never existed. In fact, Muslim persecution of Christians was a constant of history long before the creation of modern Israel. By accepting the Islamic narrative that Israel is the source of Islamic unrest, Christian leaders are doing a disservice not only to Israelis, but also to all the past and present Christian victims of Islamic aggression
A final note: It would be a mistake for conservative Catholics to assume that Meotti is simply a knee-jerk liberal, Catholic-bashing Jew who seeks to make the world safe for relativism. His “J’accuse” against Catholic leaders is precisely that they are engaging in moral relativism by drawing a moral equivalence between Palestinian terrorists and the Israeli government. It’s also interesting to note that his publisher, Mantua Books, identifies itself with “Judeo-Christian values” and opposes “cultural and moral relativism.” Moreover, as anyone who is paying attention should realize, many liberal Jews don’t give a fig for the state of Israel and are as likely to sympathize with the Palestinian cause as is any liberal Catholic.
Anti-Semitism has been conveniently labeled by the left as a right-wing phenomenon, but it is becoming more acceptable, even fashionable, among liberal elites in both Europe and the U.S. As described in Meotti’s book, the most strident anti-Israeli groups in the Catholic world are left-liberal organizations such as Pax Christi, Caritas, Trocaire, and Cordaid. In 1999, Michael Sabbah, the former Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem who aligned himself with Yasser Arafat, praised jihad, and justified suicide bombings, was named as president of Pax Christi International—an organization that advocates radical pacifism. As the old saying goes, “anti-Zionism makes strange bedfellows.”
Sabbah was also associated with the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, which, as the name implies, defends the Palestine liberation movement in terms of liberation theology. Sabeel provides a theological justification for the Intifada, and it has been in the forefront of groups that have compared Palestinians to Christ on the cross. Sometimes, it seems, Christian leaders are more intent on the liberation of Palestine than are Arab leaders. The late Coptic pope, Shenouda III, refused to accompany Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat on his visit of reconciliation to Israel in 1977. And in 1978, Pope Shenouda issued an edict forbidding Copts to visit the Holy Land until Jerusalem is “liberated.” It’s a telling indicator of left-right unanimity on the subject of Israel when a conservative figure in the Orthodox Church embraces the methods of leftist agitprop. Meanwhile, Egypt’s Copts are seeking their own liberation—from Egypt. It’s estimated that hundreds of thousands have fled the country in recent years.
Although Meotti includes Orthodox Christians and liberal Protestants in his critique, his main focus is on the Vatican. Many Catholics will be put off by this book because of its jaundiced view of Catholicism, but it is too important for them to ignore. The Vatican’s preoccupation with the mote in Israel’s eye has blinded it to a much larger problem. Even though the author spends much of the book indicting the Catholic Church for indifference to the State of Israel, he seems to have written it partly in the hope that the Church will redeem itself by charting a new course. His first chapter concludes with a brief discussion of Pope Francis, who, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, “had voiced solidarity with Jewish victims of Iranian terrorism and co-written a book with a rabbi, Avraham Skorka.” He holds out hope that the reign of Pope Francis will see a new phase in the Vatican’s relationship with Israel.
Will we see the kind of course correction that Meotti desires? My own guess is that we will not—not that I have any doubts about the pope’s love for the Jewish people, but that I have less confidence in the quality of the advice he receives on Israel. On the other hand, with Muslim attacks against Christians increasing by the day, Church leaders may now be ready for an agonizing reappraisal of the situation in the Middle East. Stay tuned.
William Kilpatrick taught for many years at Boston College. He is the author of several books about cultural and religious issues, including Psychological Seduction, Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrongand, most recently, Christianity, Islam and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West. Professor Kilpatrick’s articles on cultural and educational topics have appeared in First Things, Policy Review, American Enterprise, American Educator, Los Angeles Times, and various scholarly journals. His articles on Islam have appeared in Catholic World Report National Catholic Register, Aleteia, Saint Austin Review, New Oxford Review, Investor’s Business Daily, FrontPage Magazine, and other publications. His work is supported in part by the Shillman Foundation.