Did Pope Francis take sides when he visited the contentious heart of the Middle East a few days ago?
You might think so if you saw the one photograph from the trip that went viral. It showed the pope standing at the barrier that separates the West Bank from the rest of Israel, with his head bent against the concrete in prayer. The graffiti framing the pontiff as photographers snapped pictures shouted anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian slogans.
To Palestinians it was a sign that Francis is on their side. They reportedly plan to issue a stamp commemorating the moment.
The pope did not speak, but he appeared to be siding with those who say the wall must go. As it happens, nobody is crazy about the structure. Israelis, irritated with what looked like a propaganda victory for the other side, mused about what the pope might have been praying about. Perhaps, they commented, he was praying for an end to the terrorist attacks that made the wall necessary.
Pope Francis naturally understood the symbolism of his much-photographed stop. But he would say more, much of it without words.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Francis to visit another wall that was not on his original itinerary, the memorial to civilian victims of terrorism at Mount Herzl, the national cemetery in Jerusalem, and the pontiff agreed. The pope solemnly rested his hand on one of the 78 black marble plaques listing the names of Jewish and non-Jewish civilians who have been killed by terrorist attacks against Israel. Netanyahu also showed him a panel with the names of those killed in two massive attacks against the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community center in his native Argentina.
At Mount Herzl, the pope made another enormously powerful gesture. He laid a wreath on the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. That was quiet but irrefutable endorsement of Israel’s right to exist as the homeland of the Jewish people, a right that is vehemently rejected by groups such as Hamas, now joining with the Palestinian Authority, which have sent scores of suicide bombers into Israel and succeeded in killing indiscriminately until the ugly wall went up.
The pope understands it’s not as simple as that viral picture might imply.
And there was yet another wall. Pope Francis visited the Western Wall, commonly known as the Wailing Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, the last standing retaining wall of the ancient Jewish temple, destroyed by the Romans two thousand years ago.
It is a visible link to Jewish history on that land; a history that some are actively seeking to deny.
With that, the pope, a master of symbolism, combined three walls into one powerful message. One wall spoke of his support for a Palestinian state. Another wall showed his understanding of Israel’s legitimate security concerns. The oldest wall, along with the wreath, demonstrated his support for Israel’s right to exist.
The pope called on the two sides to coexist, to work out their differences and move to a two-state solution. He invited the Israelis president and the head of the Palestinian Authority to meet at the Vatican.
There were other important stops during the whirlwind trip of the Holy Land. A barefoot Francis walked into the iconic golden Dome of the Rock, just on the other side of the Western Wall. Muslims believe that is where the Prophet Mohammed set off on his Night Journey, riding to heaven. It is one of the holiest places in Islam. It is also the place where archeological evidence shows the Jewish Temple stood and where Jewish tradition says Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son.
It is the beating heart of the emotional conflict and a place where violence frequently erupts.
At that place, holy to so many, the pope addressed Muslim leaders as “Dear brothers,” and said, “May no one abuse the name of God through violence. May we learn to understand the suffering of others.”
It was then that he went below to the Wailing Wall and placed a small piece of paper with a prayer into the cracks between the giant rocks. He put his arms around two of his traveling companions from Argentina, Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Omar Abboud, a Muslim leader. The three, a Catholic, a Muslim, and a Jew, held each other and prayed.
Yes, the Pope took sides. He stood for peace and reconciliation.