The Pope and the Palestinians


Shatila Refugee Camp.

The only time this observer recalls Yassir Arafat ever becoming frustrated with the late American journalist Janet Stevens, whom he adored as a daughter, was during a visit in August of 1982 when the PLO leader, mentioned in conversation, as he often did to others, that Jesus Christ was a Palestinian. Arafat, a devout Muslim, was proud of that fact.

On that particular night, Janet was exhausted, as many under siege in West Beirut were, from more than 11 hours of Israeli bombing and she had other things on her mind. Most pressing was a sick child in Burj al Baranjeh refugee camp who needed to be taken to Europe for a lifesaving operation without delay.

Janet asked, well, truth is told, she essentially instructed the PLO leader to arrange the evacuation of the child and even mentioned a specific European country that would likely assist with the operation without “political complications” from the Zionist lobby.  Janet interrupted what she assumed would be one of Arafat’s long discourses about the resistance fighter from Nazareth, and burst out, impatiently:   “For Christ’s sake, Abu Ammar, please don’t tell me about Jesus just now! We have got to get this child out of Lebanon or she will surely die!” Arafat appeared surprised, even taken aback. Perhaps it was because as a deeply religious man who respected other religions and especially valued meetings with Sheiks, Priests and Rabbis, he liked to tell guests about how Jesus and his mother Mary attended a wedding ceremony at Qana in South Lebanon, as noted in the Koran and the Bible, and also how ‘Prophet Issa’ regularly visited Tyre and Sidon and villages along his path.

One imagines that Yassir Arafat would have relished meeting Pope Benedict XVI in Lebanon as he had met Pope John Paul nine times. The PLO leader once recalled a special meeting when, on short notice, Pope John Paul invited him to the Pontiff’s summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, Italy. It was September 19, 1999, the 17th Anniversary of the Sabra-Shatila Massacre. Arafat described how both his and the Popes eyes brimmed as the successor of St. Peter  stunned Arafat with his deep knowledge and sadness of what was perpetrated during the nearly 50 hours of non-stop slaughter in the Beirut refugee camp.

Both Arafat and Janet believed that Christians are in the Middle East not because they arrived as part of a colonial empire, despite the crusades a millennium after Christ. They considered them as part of the makeup of the original landscape with deep roots in this land and  that they have a right to live in the place where they were born and to fully exercise their undeniable Right of Return if they were ethnically cleansed.

While much of the Pope’s schedule is pretty much taken up with meetings and meals with politicians and  high ranking prelates, to his credit, Bishop Camille Zaidan, Chairman of the Central Committee tasked with preparing the schedule the Pope Benedict XVI visit to Lebanon this weekend, has officially invited all the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon to two Papal events, including an address by the Holy Father at Beirut’s International Airport and the Holy Mass and the Presentation of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation for the Middle East in the Beirut City Center Waterfront. Still under discussion is a possible visit by the Pontiff to Shatila Camp and Martyr’s Cemetery where the remains of approximately 1,100 Palestinians, Lebanese and other nationalities were hastily buried 30 years ago as the World learned of the manifold horrors of the Sabra-Shatila massacre.

According to I.MEDIA news agency, which is close to the Vatican, the Melkite Greek Catholic Church leader Gregory III Laham the spiritual head of Lebanon’s second largest Catholic community has stated his intension “to ask the Pope to recognize a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its shared capital and in compliance with the resolutions and decisions of the international community and international law.”   I. Media, reports that “Gregory plans to thank the Holy See for its “firm and unwavering position on the [Palestinian] cause.”  Gregory believes, that, “Such an action would allow the Holy See to remain a “pioneer of world justice” and prompt European and other countries to follow.

The Palestinians of Lebanon, and those in solidarity with their struggle to Return, are much encouraged by his call for dialogue and reconciliation in Lebanon.  His words, following last Sundays Angelus blessing:  “My apostolic trip to Lebanon, and by extension to the whole of the Middle East, is taking place under the sign of peace,” and his emphasis  on “the particular  need for peaceful coexistence between Christian and Muslim communities in Lebanon and the region” are shared by all people of good will.

One hopes that Pope Benedict, as head of much of Lebanon’s Christian community, will encourage his large following among members of Parliament, the more than 800 religious and political leaders in Lebanon, to make a 90 minute oblation. Ninety minutes is the time required in Parliament to repeal the racist 2001 law that makes it a criminal offense for Palestinians in Lebanon to own home.  As part of the same oblation, Lebanon’s leaders could glorify God by enacting the right to work for Palestinian refugees here, an elementary civil right accorded to every other foreigner in Lebanon and every refugee around the world, including apartheid Israel.

Metaphorically speaking, perhaps for some who have  actively worked to deny Palestinian refugees in Lebanon even the most fundamental human rights,  this courageous act could be seen as a sort of “ Full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction” as described  in the first Book of Common Prayer, 1549.

The teachings and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth demand no less.

Franklin Lamb is doing research in Lebanon and is reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com

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