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From the August 2001 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 48, No. 8)

For We Are Also His Offspring

Ejub Stitkovac, Reporter (independent weekly), Belgrade, Yugoslavia, May 16, 2001

The recent trips by 81-year-old Pope John Paul II to Greece, Syria, and Malta confirm that the head of the Roman Catholic Church shows no sign of slowing down and continues, despite his deteriorating health, to face new challenges with courage. Insiders say that the secret to his success lies in his ability not to be bothered by the criticism directed at him and the Vatican. Instead, he accepts it as a matter of course.
It can even be said that the recent protests of members of the Greek Orthodox Church (especially adherents of such banned sects as the Old Calendar Church and the Greek-Orthodox Salvation Movement) did not cause him any particular unease—not even the lukewarm reception of Archbishop Christodoulos.

The pope’s ability to maintain his composure may have something to do with the fact that he’s been taking a lot of prescription medications, or it may be due to something entirely different. Be that as it may, his recent visit to Greece is indisputably momentous, as he is the first pope to visit that country since the church schism in 1054.

In view of this fact, he surely deserves to be credited for at least symbolically bridging the gap between the two faiths. The Christianity of the West and East have been blaming each other for causing the split of 1054. In doing so, they have usually lost sight of the fact that this momentous event was caused not merely by a difference in religious opinion but also by the politics of the time.

In his usual manner, the pope asked members of the Orthodox Church “to forgive the past as well as present sins of the sons and daughters of the Catholic Church against Orthodox brothers and sisters.” He sought God’s forgiveness as well, never once asking Orthodox Christians to seek forgiveness from Catholics. In fact, this predictable one-way plea for forgiveness is really a symbolic challenge to the other side.

Truth be told, it is actually quite logical that the Greeks should accept his apology, which will in turn symbolize the beginning of a dialogue about what is really at stake: the sensitive issue of the status of Catholic minorities in countries such as Russia, where the Roman Catholic Church and its principles have been completely ignored, both legally and politically. It is also not surprising that Archbishop Christodoulos visited Moscow soon after his encounter with the pope.

Although the archbishop’s reservations toward the head of the Catholic Church were obvious, their conversation ended with a handshake, a pat on the shoulder, and this statement: “I am very pleased with the outcome of the pope’s visit. He was very nice to us despite the existing problems between the two faiths—the problems that we both agreed must be confronted and overcome.”

It was precisely this comment that affirms that the pope achieved what he sought: to bring to light the fact that disagreement does exist. Until now, members of the Orthodox Church have refused to face the most sensitive issues, rejecting the pope’s offers to end their dispute in order to create a unified Christian Church. The main reason is that the Vatican “wholeheartedly” advocated unity on the basis of one unacceptable condition: that the pope become the head of the new unified church. No Orthodox Church would agree to that.

In any case, the pope’s visit to Greece went rather well, certainly better than expected—at least as far as the official reception is concerned. Meanwhile, the Vatican has not released any statement about the protests in Athens and the numerous placards that referred to the pope as the Antichrist or portrayed him as a horned devil. The pope’s visit to the Greek capital will also be remembered by the empty streets that greeted him, though his coolest reception to date has been in Scandinavia, in 1989, when a meager crowd of 200 devotees listened to his speech.

The pope’s visit to Syria seemed to have been more significant in achieving peace and stability between Christians than in helping to resolve the crisis in the Middle East. That, too, was part of the pope’s plan. As it turns out, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a cordial host, but he has no intention of negotiating with the Israelis until some fundamental criteria have been fulfilled and until the issues pertaining to the occupied territories have been fully resolved. It is certainly nice to hear the head of the Roman Catholic Church inviting all Arabs and Israelis, Muslims, Christians, and Jews to get along, but it will take more than a verbal plea to bring change to the Middle East. It is hard to believe that any of these faiths will want to accept the Vatican’s intermediary role; they each have their share of peacemakers, who earn decent money but lack the power to influence such matters.

Although this visit was clearly pastoral by nature, it was somewhat political as well: The pope managed to visit the Golan Heights, which the Israelis occupied in 1967. It is thus uncertain whether his message of peace will soften the views of Israel and Syria.

The pope’s visit, however, surely had great significance in establishing further dialogue between Catholic and Muslim theologians. Theologian Mahmud Masri himself confirmed for Reporter that the pope’s visit to an old mosque built in 795 was a symbol of his respect for the Muslim faith.

Masri added: “The pope’s visit to the mosque was a great honor despite the fact that he might have been driven by other, less humanitarian motives. Most likely, he visited the mosque because it represents an important part of the Christian tradition as well, but let’s not get into that. This is clearly an act of goodwill, and we appreciate it. As far as the relationship between Christians and Muslims goes, it exists on several levels today. I think we have yet to reach a point where we can discuss what truly matters. It is the existing differences between the two theologies that seem always to prevent much-needed dialogue before it even starts.”

Masri pointed out that 16 long years had passed since the pope’s first visit to a synagogue, in Rome in 1985. When asked to respond to the pope’s announcement that “it is time to start anew with Islam,” he proclaimed: “I am glad to hear such a comment, especially if it is coming from the heart. It will take a while, however, for major improvements to take place. There is too much history behind us to be able to see dramatic changes right away.”

All in all, the pope did what he could. Regardless of what people believe his true motives might have been, his persistence usually impresses even his opponents and leaves very few indifferent. It is clear that he still hasn’t given up his dream of reuniting different faiths. He reaffirmed this belief in a recent speech in Malta. His representatives say that he is well aware of the contradictory nature of the world in which we live, that his messages of peace are but mere wishes, and that the most important thing is that they are heard by as many political and religious leaders—and their followers—as possible.

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