The pope's visit comes at a critical time in the long and troubled history of the Middle East.
The biblical lands that constitute the Holy Land are the birthplace of three major religions-in chronological order of their appearance on the world stage, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The region is also the crossroads of the three continents that have played the most significant roles in the history of the world. Jerusalem, at the very center of it all, has been fought over more than any other single piece of real estate in history. The Bible tells us that it is to be fought over at least one more time, "trampled by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled" (Luke 21:24).
Nobody can deny the city's disputed status. Its 3,000-year history has seen it dominated by many different nations and peoples, including the three religions that deem the city holy.
Roman Catholics had possession of it for over one hundred years during the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Protestant British took it from the Moslem Turks in 1917, ruling the city until it was divided 31 years later as the modern nation of Israel was born. The "Old City" of Jerusalem was to remain a part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan until the Six-Day War of 1967. For 33 years, Israel has controlled all of Jerusalem and considers it "the Eternal Capital of Israel," though few other nations recognize it as such, preferring to keep their embassies in less controversial Tel Aviv.
What few people realize is that many of the prophecies in the Bible that relate to the "end time"-prior to the second coming of Jesus Christ-could not possibly have been fulfilled until the modern state of Israel was established in 1948. Israel's existence has led to never-ending conflict in the region. The Jewish state is the most powerful military force in the area, having gained the upper hand over its enemies through the continuous conflict that has afflicted the peoples of the area for over half a century.
The current so-called "peace process" sponsored by the United States is a progressive, organized handover of lands captured by the nation of Israel during this time of conflict-territory considered essential for Israel's security at the time it was taken. A younger, more liberal generation now seeks peace at almost any price. The hope is that by handing back captured territories, Israel's enemies will become friends. The reality is that each completed stage of the peace process further weakens the Jewish state.
What is overlooked is that all the land of Israel, including the internationally recognized borders the country was given at its birth, belonged to others in recent times. No matter how much land the Israelis return to the Palestinians during the ongoing peace process, there will be demands for more. Eventually, the most vexing question of all will have to be resolved: Who will rule Jerusalem?
At this critical time in Israel's history, Pope John Paul II arrived, walking into this controversy with its pent-up frustration, anger, bitterness and resentment. As students of the Bible know, the conflict goes back even further, to the rivalry that existed between two brothers in ancient time, Isaac and Ishmael, ancestors of the Israelites and the Arabs, respectively. You can read about their rivalry in the book of Genesis.
It's impossible to understand the complexities of the Middle East without knowledge of the Bible and the history of the three religions that came out of this area. Animosities between the peoples of these three religions have probably caused more deaths in the last 2,000 years than any other single factor that divides people. Realizing that the Catholic Church 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 even apologized before leaving the Vatican for the Holy Land.
However, 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 caused feelings to flare.
The pope spoke at Yad Vashem, the Jewish memorial to the Holocaust, saying the Catholic 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 anti-Semitism that has plagued the Jews for two millennia.
Many Israelis were disappointed at the weak apology given, though few seemed to doubt the personal sorrow the present pope feels. It would be impossible for the pope to acknowledge the sins of previous church leaders as this would go to the very heart of church doctrine and bring into question the 1870 Doctrine of Papal Infallibility, thereby weakening his own position.
After his visit to Yad Vashem, the pope attended an Inter-Faith Dialog between leaders of the three religions. One person present described the session afterward as a "dialog of the deaf." Beliefs are too deeply entrenched for much common ground to be found.
Support for Palestine
But it was in the political arena that the pope's words were most felt. His call for an independent Palestinian state will only encourage the declaration of independence that Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat keeps threatening. As the Palestinians only control pockets of land bordered on most sides by Israelis, such a declaration would inevitably ignite further conflict in the Middle East.
Most issues can probably be resolved, given outside pressure and assurances from world powers, the United States in particular. But a solution to the Jerusalem question would require the wisdom of Israel's ancient King Solomon, the builder of the temple that is at the center of controversy. The Temple Mount is of great importance to the Jews. Upon it is built the Muslim Dome of the Rock from which the prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven. Whatever else can be divided, this piece of land cannot be.
One possible solution is the internationalization of the "Old City" of Jerusalem, of importance to all three faiths. In recent times, a number of contentious issues have been internationalized; the latest ones are Kosovo and East Timor. Forces from a number of nations are currently based in both areas to keep the peace. The same could happen to Jerusalem.
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. There are historical precedents for this.
Whatever course is taken, Jerusalem will fall under the temporary control of non-Israelites as the Bible shows. The Middle East is at the center of Bible prophecy. A conflict there could soon involve major 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 Christ spoke of a time when they would see "Jerusalem surrounded by armies" (Luke 21:20). Interestingly, in verse 22, He spoke of this as "the days of vengeance," a time when all the animosities that have been simmering explode in major conflict that literally threatens the existence of the planet. "And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect's sake those days will be shortened" (Matthew 24:22). WNP