A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Vatican Prayer "Summit": Merely Symbolic or Something More?

Stalin allegedly asked once, when someone brought up the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, "How many divisions does the Pope have?" Most versions claim Stalin said it to Churchill in 1944, but Churchill himself insisted it was actually said in 1935 to the (right-wing, later Vichy) French politician Pierre Laval, of all people.

It's been a long time since any Pope fielded an actual army, but the Papacy still has considerable clout in the world, and not only with Catholic countries, as Pope Francis' hosting of Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud ‘Abbas reminds us. Of course, bringing the two men together to pray and plant trees in the Vatican garden is merely symbolic; this was not a peace negotiation, and Peres is the 90-year old President who is on the very brink of retiring, not the Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, who could actually deliver a deal if he chose to.

The Pope says this was a prayer service for peace, not a negotiation or a mediation,saying that is a job for diplomacy, but the Pope has also referred in the past to the role of his namesake, Francis of Assisi, during the Crusades, when the saint met with the Ayyubid Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil, leading to truce negotiations.

But while the event may have been largely symbolic, coming at a time when Netanyahu is refusing to talk to ‘Abbas due the creation of a unity government that includes Hamas, symbols have power. Think of Sadat's visit to Jerusalem: it took two years from there to the Peace Treaty, but the image of the Egyptian President speaking to the Knesset was a breakthrough. Think of American "ping-pong diplomacy" with China in he Nixon years. Yesterday's meeting was clearly symbolic, but it offered the hopeful message I suspected the Pope was seeking.

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