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the August 2001 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 48,
For We Are Also His Offspring
Reporter (independent weekly), Belgrade, Yugoslavia, May
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
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 uneasenot
even the lukewarm reception of Archbishop Christodoulos.
The popes ability to maintain his composure may have
something to do with the fact that hes 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 Gods 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 archbishops 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 popes
visit. He was very nice to us despite the existing problems
between the two faithsthe 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 popes
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 popes visit to Greece went rather well,
certainly better than expectedat 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 popes 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 popes 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 popes 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 Vaticans
intermediary role; they each have their share of peacemakers,
who earn decent money but lack the power to influence such
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 popes visit, however, surely had great significance
in establishing further dialogue between Catholic and Muslim
theologians. Theologian Mahmud Masri himself confirmed for
Reporter that the popes visit to an old mosque
built in 795 was a symbol of his respect for the Muslim faith.
Masri added: The popes 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 lets 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
Masri pointed out that 16 long years had passed since the
popes first visit to a synagogue, in Rome in 1985. When
asked to respond to the popes 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 hasnt 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 leadersand their followersas