Today, Pope Francis welcomed Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in a private audience at the Vatican—just a week before the scheduled visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The visit of these two leaders coincides with reports that the pope will visit the region next March—possibly with Bartholomew I, the Patriarch of Constantinople.
Given his magnanimous style and deep concern for the poor, might Francis follow the example of Francis of Assisi and work for peace and dialogue in the Holy Land? And will he be more successful than the recent efforts by Obama and Kerry in brokering a lasting peace deal in the Holy Land? I would argue yes, and here are a few reasons why.
First, Francis (perhaps more than any other world leader) has credibility on both sides of the conflict. Given the social, charitable and economic (i.e. pilgrims) roles played by the church, Catholic leaders have more legitimacy for Palestinians than American leadership. On the Israeli side, Francis has displayed a profound concern for Jewish-Christian relations, even co-authoring a book with an Argentinean rabbi on the topic. The conclave, as Francis X. Rocca pointed out, “could not have elected a man with a clearer commitment to Catholic-Jewish relations than Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.”
Second, Francis has displayed a strong commitment to peace in the Middle East. In September, he led the world in a historic prayer vigil and fast for peace – possibly preventing an American-led military intervention in the region.
Third, Francis will have Archbishop Pietro Parolin as his diplomatic point person. The new secretary of state has a wealth of experience in negotiating messy diplomatic conflicts in places as diverse as Mexico, Nigeria, China, and Venezuela. Parolin’s humble realism will certainly, as the Vatican Insider commented, mean that “the Holy See will once again be well placed to offer its wisdom and foresight in order to promote peace.”
A key question will be if Francis can inspire and mobilize the Catholic and political community in the United States to seriously work for a two-state solution. American Catholics can be an important counter-weight to powerful evangelical Christian lobbies that are dogmatically against the creation of a Palestinian state.
“Soon, Soon” – A Peace Deal
During his visit to the Vatican today, Pope Francis gave President Abbas a pen. Abbas told the Holy Father that he hoped to use the gift to sign a peace agreement with Israel. “Soon, soon,” the pope responded. Let us hope and pray that Francis is right.