Papal Visit Highlights Middle East Problems

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Papal Visit Highlights Middle East Problems

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In March the world's attention again focused on the Middle East—and Israel in particular—as Pope John Paul II visited many Bible-related sites in a long-planned and highly publicized journey. Thought by some to be the most important visit the nation of Israel has ever accommodated, John Paul's pilgrimage, which he called his "personal spiritual journey," to the Holy Land turned out to be one of the most political of his 22-year pontificate. It was inevitable. The area Christians call the Holy Land is the birthplace of three religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in that order. The region—the crossroads of three continents—has played major roles in the history of the world. Center of controversy Jerusalem, at the center of it all, is one of the most fought-over pieces of real estate. Since its founding in 1948, Israel has fought five wars—the War of Independence in 1948, the Suez-Sinai War in 1956, the Six Day War in 1967, the October War in 1973 and the 1982 war to eradicate Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) strongholds in Lebanon. Iraq's Saddam Hussein also attacked Israel with missiles during the 1991 Gulf War, but Israel refrained from counterattacking so as not to possibly divide the Western and Arab nations allied against Iraq. Jerusalem, whose name means "city of peace," has not seen much peace. The Bible tells us the city will be fought over at least one more time, "trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled" (Luke 21:24). Revelation 11:2 adds that this will be for "42 months," a period of 3 1/2 years. The city is long used to conflict and controversy. Already old when King David captured it and made it his capital 3,000 years ago, it has been dominated by many peoples and nations, including the three religions that sanctify the city as holy. Roman Catholics held it for more than a century during the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Protestant British took it from the Muslim Turks in 1917, then ruled it until it was divided 31 years later when the modern state of Israel was born. The Old City section of Jerusalem was to remain a part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan until the 1967 war. For 33 years Israel has controlled Jerusalem. Many Israelis consider it their eternal capital, though few other nations recognize it as such, preferring to keep their embassies in less-controversial Tel Aviv. In spite of its long history, only the Jews have looked to Jerusalem as their capital. Jerusalem has never been the capital of any Islamic nation, although Palestinians aggressively assert that the city should be the capital for their planned Palestinian state. Stage set for fulfillment of prophecy Few people realize that so many of the prophecies in the Bible that relate to the "time of the end" before the second coming of Christ could not possibly have been fulfilled until modern Israel was established in 1948. Israel's existence led to never-ending conflict in the region. Mainly because of military aid from its chief ally, the United States, the Jewish state is the most powerful military force in the area, having gained the upper hand through the continual conflict that has afflicted the peoples of the area for more than half a century. The so-called peace process sponsored by the United States is a progressive, organized return of lands captured by the Israelis over these decades of conflict, territory Israel considered essential for its security at the time it was taken. A younger, more liberal generation seeks peace at almost any price. Its hope is that, by handing back captured territories, Israel at last will be accepted by its neighbors and able to live in peace. Often overlooked is that all the land of Israel, including the internationally recognized borders the country acquired at its birth, belonged to others in recent times. No matter how much land the Israelis return to the Palestinians during the continuing peace process, there will be further demands for more. Though Israel has made peace with some of its neighbors—Egypt and Jordan—other Arab nations, leaders and groups remain adamant that Jewish state in the region is unacceptable. Eventually the most vexing question will have to be resolved: Who will rule Jerusalem? At this critical time in Israel's history Pope John Paul II walked into the controversy with its pent-up frustration and resentment. As students of the Bible know, the contention goes all the way back to the rivalry that existed between two brothers in ancient times: Isaac and Ishmael, ancestors of the Israelites and the Arabs, respectively. You can read about their rivalry in the book of Genesis. The pope's apology It is impossible to understand the complexities of the Middle East without a knowledge of the Bible and the history of the three religions that came out of the area. Animosities between the peoples of the three relevant religions have brought about countless deaths and untold suffering over the centuries. Realizing that the Roman Catholic Church, bigger than either Islam or Judaism, was often responsible for encouraging the persecution of Jews and animosity toward Muslims, the pope came with an apology, attempting reconciliation with both religions. In fact, he had even apologized before leaving the Vatican for the Holy Land. But the apology was not sufficient for many who feel the church is still not facing up to its past. Recent revelations about the role of Pope Pius XII during World War II have inflamed feelings. The wartime leader of the Catholic Church has often been condemned for his alleged anti-Semitism and for failing to speak out against the Nazi persecution of the Jews. The pope spoke at Yad Vashem, the Jewish memorial to the Nazi Holocaust, saying that the church is "saddened" by the Holocaust, rather than "sorry," which would be an admittance of some guilt. The church's teaching that "the Jews killed Christ" has echoed down through the centuries and greatly contributed to much of the antiSemitism that has plagued the Jews for two millennia. Many Israelis were disappointed at what was generally perceived to be a weak apology, though few seemed to doubt the personal sorrow the present pope feels. After his visit to Yad Vashem, the pope participated in a dialog between leaders of the three religions. One person present described the session afterward as a "dialog of the deaf." Beliefs and prejudices are too deeply entrenched for much common ground to be found. But it was in the political arena that the pope's words were most felt. His call for a Palestinian "homeland"—recognized as support for a Palestinian state—will encourage movement in that direction. Since the Palestinians control mainly pockets of land—their population centers—bordered on most sides by Israeli-controlled territory, such a declaration would inevitably ignite further conflict in the Mideast. A forced solution for Jerusalem? Most issues can probably be resolved, given sufficient outside pressure and assurances from major powers. But a solution to the Jerusalem question would require the wisdom of Israel's ancient King Solomon, the builder of Israel's first temple. The possibility of the building of a third temple lies at the center of the controversies. The site of the first and second temple, the Temple Mount, is of great importance to the Jews. There, from about 964 to 957 B.C., Solomon built the magnificent temple that was the center of worship for the kingdom of Israel and later the kingdom of Judah, until its destruction at the hands of the Babylonians in 587 B.C. After returning from captivity in Babylon, Jewish exiles under the leadership of Zerubbabel rebuilt the temple from about 536 to 516 B.C. Then, beginning in 18 B.C., King Herod the Great and his successors expanded and enlarged the temple complex, creating the magnificent edifice mentioned so often in the Gospels. It was again the religious center of the nation until the Romans razed it and much of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. To many Jews, the Temple Mount remains a holy place, the place where God dwelt. But the site that is holy to the Jews is also holy to Muslims. Upon the Temple Mount—some say in the exact spot where the first and second temple stood—is the Muslims' Dome of the Rock, from which the prophet Muhammed is said to have ascended to heaven. Another mosque stands nearby, also on the Temple Mount. Regardless of whatever else can be divided, this piece of land cannot be. The pope visited only with Islamic leaders while visiting the Temple Mount, sending what appeared to be a clear message of support to the Palestinians over their claims to Jerusalem. One possible solution to this contentious issue is the internationalization of Jerusalem's Old City, a site of great importance to all three faiths. In recent times several centers of contention have been internationalized; the latest are Kosovo and East Timor. Armed forces from several nations are based in both nations to keep the peace. Could the same thing happen to Jerusalem? If recent history is a guide, it could happen. Vatican City, as the world's smallest nation and without an armed force of its own, could itself play a role, perhaps as guardian of the Christian holy sites. The agreement signed between the Vatican and the Palestinians noted that "an equitable solution for the issue of Jerusalem, based on international resolutions, is fundamental for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East," and "any unilateral decisions and actions altering the special character and legal status of Jerusalem are morally and legally unacceptable." This prohibition includes Israel's considering Jerusalem its capital. Divided neighbors in a divided land By no means is Jerusalem the only area of controversy in the region. Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak, bowing to public pressure after the deaths of many Israeli soldiers, has promised to withdraw the military from southern Lebanon, where Israel has manned a security zone to protect towns in northern Israel from Islamic guerrilla attacks. Some are calling for United Nations forces or soldiers from European nations to insert themselves as peacekeepers between the two sides. Similarly, Prime Minister Barak seeks a peace treaty between Israel and Syria, one of Israel's longtime foes. The Syrians demand the return of the Golan Heights, a strategically crucial plateau from which Syrian artillery regularly bombarded Israeli towns and settlers before Jewish forces took the area in the 1967 war. Syria's President Assad demands access to the Sea of Galilee, the large freshwater lake from which Israel draws nearly a third of the water it consumes. The Golan Heights also controls the headwaters of the Jordan River, the primary water source for the Sea of Galilee. In the ever-thirsty Middle East, water is a crucial resource for all concerned, not to be surrendered easily. If Israel does reach an agreement that entails giving up part or all of the Golan Heights, it surely won't be without considerable security guarantees that most likely again will entail outside military peacekeeping forces. Outsiders will again control Jerusalem Whatever course is taken, Jerusalem eventually will again fall under the temporary control of non-Israelites, as the Bible prophesies. The Middle East is at the center of Bible prophecy. Any conflict there could quickly involve nations around the world. Asked by His disciples what events would indicate the imminence of His return to the earth to establish the Kingdom of God, Jesus spoke of a time when Jerusalem would be "surrounded by armies" (Luke 21:20). In verse 22 He spoke of this as "the days of vengeance," a time of simmering animosities exploding in conflicts that could threaten the very existence of life on the planet. Unless those days would be cut short, Jesus said, "no flesh would be saved; but for the elect's sake those days will be shortened" (Matthew 24:22). Israel's very existence as a nation is at stake as the peace process continues. The country is divided between those who will risk security for an agreement and those who see the dangers that lie in trusting neighbors who have long sought their demise. Bible prophecy tells us that Jerusalem will see terrifying developments as the time of the end draws near (Zechariah 14:1-2). But beyond this troubled time lies the remarkable age when Jerusalem will truly be the city of peace, when long-standing animosities will be quelled and its citizens will dwell safely in harmony. GN

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