Is Lebanon Lost?

Evidence of Hezbollah’s presence in Lebanon wasn’t  hard to come by as I travelled in the country a few years ago.  Visiting the world-renowned ruins of Baalbek,  for instance, meant entering Hezbollah-controlled territory in the Bekaa Valley.  On the way to the archeological site, I passed numerous yellow and green Hezbollah flags and banners, posters of Hezbollah’s leader Nasrallah, as well as sundry Shia ‘martyrs’.  The women we passed along the road were all dressed in black:  a sign that we were in Shia territory.   I must confess that I was tense as we approached the checkpoint, but we were waved through without any problem.

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Columns of the Temple to Jupiter

The city of Baalbek had its origins in the 3rd millennium BC as a Phoenician place of worship to the god Baal.  In 47 BC Julius Caesar made Baalbek capital of his Roman colony here.  Over the next 200 years a succession of Roman emperors oversaw the construction on the site of temples in honour of Rome’s gods.  The columns in the photo above are what remains of a temple dedicated to Jupiter.   A trip to Baalbeck is a must-see for any visitor to Lebanon.

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Evidence of Hezbollah on the way to Baalbek  (I have no idea what the Arabic on the Hezbollah banners says.)

At the time I visited Lebanon, Hezbollah held sway largely in the Bekaa Valley. Today, Hezbollah, incredibly, is the most powerful member of Lebanon’s current ruling coalition.  How could this have happened?

The answer is, in one word, Iran.  The Shiite militia group hizb’allah, ‘party of Allah’, or Hezbollah, was formed in 1985, aided and abetted by the Islamic Republic of Iran, as a resistance group to counter Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.  At the end of Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990), Hezbollah was the only major militia allowed to retain its weapons, in spite of a UN Security Council resolution to the contrary.  In 1992, Hezbollah began running candidates for Lebanon’s government.  In 2000, when Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon,  Hezbollah claimed the credit for driving the Israelis out.  In 2005, Lebanon’s Sunni prime minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated by a car bomb.  More recently, Hezbollah has seen more than 1000 of its members killed  fighting on the side of Bashar Assad and Iran in the Syrian civil war.

Hezbollah’s influence only keeps growing, not just in Lebanon, but in the wider region. Hezbollah is working with Iranian-backed forces in Iraq, and is allegedly  arming and training the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen as well.  Returning the favour, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is said to be building underground arms factories right in Lebanon itself.  Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon now constitutes Iran’s most valuable proxy in the Middle East.

Is it still possible, even at this late date, to wrest control of Lebanon from the clutches of Shiite Iran?  That is what Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and his son Crown Prince  Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) appear to have in mind.  On 4 November, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri was summoned to Riyadh, pressured to resign (most likely), and is now being held against his will (allegedly).  It is believed that King Salman removed PM Hariri–a Sunni Muslim and a citizen of Saudi Arabia as well as Lebanon–because he failed to adequately deal with Hezbollah. Hariri’s ‘kidnapping’ is merely the opening salvo in a tug-of-war between the Sunni Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran over Lebanon’s future.   There’s more to come, for sure.

Iran is very open about its ultimate goal:  the destruction of Israel.  I mentioned earlier how I saw signs of Hezbollah’s presence in Lebanon.  I also saw signs of Hezbollah’s presence on the other side of the world, in Buenos Aires, in a park.

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On 18 July 1994, a Hezbollah suicide bomber from south Lebanon detonated a car bomb in front of the Jewish Community Centre in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  The explosion killed 85, wounded 300, and destroyed the building.  The scene of what was once a cruel terrorist attack on innocent people has been turned into a place of quiet contemplation.

Being Iran’s proxy in the region makes Lebanon extremely vulnerable in any coming confrontation with Israel.  When I was in Lebanon, I encountered people so opposed to the Shiite militia/terrorist organization that they literally spat out the name, “Hezbollah.” For their sake and Lebanon’s, I hope it’s not too late.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Waiting for Figs

Hanging FruitOne of my thrills as a gardener this past year (I use the term ‘gardener’ loosely) has been to watch a fig tree grow and produce fruit for the very first time.  My fig tree produced its first crop of figs in late August.  There were four figs in all. I wasn’t sure what a ripe fig should look like, and so sampled the first one too early. Which explains why it was pink inside and not as sweet-tasting as I had anticipated.

Hanging Fruit 2

I subsequently learned that a ripe fig is soft and squishy–gooey almost–and brown, like the one in the photo.

Watching my fig tree flourish and produce fruit these past months has brought to mind a number of biblical passages in which a fig tree features prominently.  I’m told that there are some 50 references  to figs and fig trees in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and New Testament.  (I don’t intend to comment on all 50!) In two earlier blogs,  I describe how our primeval parents Adam and Eve used fig leaves in an attempt to cover their nakedness  (9 June 2017 blog); and how Jesus, in what was a prophetic sign-act,  pronounced judgment on a fruitless fig tree (28 June 2017 blog).

Jesus also told a parable about a fig tree (Luke 13:6-9).

A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any.  So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, “For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any.  Cut it down!  Why should it use up the soil?” “Sir,” the man replied, “leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.  If it bears fruit next year, fine!  If not, then cut it down” (NIV).

The characters in this parable are usually identified thus:  the owner of the fig tree is God, the caretaker is Jesus, and the fig tree is Israel.  Jesus’ ministry, begun in approximately AD 28-29, lasted for three years.  In that time there has been little response from his own people, the Jews.   Jesus, not willing to see the fig tree destroyed,  intercedes on its behalf. He calls for a reprieve for the fig tree,  another chance, one more year.   During that time, he himself will do all he can for the tree. If, at the end of one year there is no fruit, then the owner of the tree can uproot it.

Jesus intervenes to save the fig tree, recalling Moses’ earlier intercession on behalf of his people.  The Israelites had Aaron build a golden calf to worship when Moses was overly late in descending from the mountain.  God was ready to annihilate the “stiff-necked” people, but  Moses implored God to  “turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people” (Ex 32:12).  Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened (v. 14). 

In the parable, the caretaker asks for a delay, not a total reprieve, on behalf of the tree, knowing that the owner is within his rights to remove a fruitless tree taking up valuable space in his vineyard.  The parable of the fruitless fig tree raises a somber note: While God may delay judgment for a time, a day of reckoning will inevitably come.

Fall FruitMy first crop of figs–the so-called ‘early’ figs–ripened in late August.  A second crop of figs is growing now–the so-called ‘late’ figs–even as the tree’s leaves change from green to yellow.  I’m not sure what will happen to the developing figs as the weather grows colder.  In Israel in Jesus’ time, the first crop was eaten fresh, and the later figs were dried for the winter.  Are there any biblical passages that refer to these ‘late’ figs?  Yes there are–I feel another blog coming on!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Terror on Temple Mount

Today is Tisha B’Av, the saddest day for the Jewish people in their entire lunar calendar.  This is a day of fasting and reflection as Jews recall the great calamities that befell their people on Tisha  B’Av, the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av.  Tradition has it that both Jerusalem Temples were destroyed on this day:  Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC, and Herod’s Temple in AD 70.  Also on this same day, the last Jewish fortress to hold out against the Romans during the Bar Kochba Revolt fell in AD 135. A  year later, the Temple area was ploughed under by the Romans, again on TishaB’Av.

I can’t help but think that recent events on the Temple Mount must add to the Jewish sense of mourning today. A little over two weeks ago, Arab Israelis smuggled guns onto the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif to Muslims).  Three of the gun smugglers then trained their guns on policemen standing guard just outside the site, killing two Israeli Druze police officers, before being themselves killed.  As a way to prevent further attacks of this nature, Israel installed metal detectors at two of the gates opening onto the Temple Mount and closed the others.  We all know how well that went over with certain members of the Muslim population.  Not content merely to boycott the Temple Mount or riot, one ‘aggrieved’ Arab Israeli, wanting to avenge what he saw as an ‘assault on the al-Aqsa mosque’, slaughtered three members of a Jewish family as they were sitting down for their Shabbat meal.

Mounting metal detectors seems like a reasonable response to the attack, yet it was highly objectionable to many Muslims.  What Israel had done by installing metal detectors was to “change the status quo.” (I would have thought that a terrorist attack on the Temple Mount had already changed the status quo, but that was not what the Muslim objection was all about.)

What is the ‘status quo’ on the Temple Mount?  Although the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif is sacred to both Jews and Muslims,  Jews are not allowed to pray there.  Before Jews are allowed to enter the compound, their belongings are meticulously checked for prayer shawls and phylacteries.  On the esplanade itself, patrolling police carefully scrutinize Jewish faces for moving lips, a telltale ‘giveaway’ that the Jewish visitor just might be praying.  Two weeks ago, the police were checking for moving lips, but missed terrorists moving guns onto the Temple Mount.

The idea that it is illegal for a Jew to pray on the former site of the Jewish Temple–to even be seen moving his or her lips–should be abhorrent to anyone who cares about religious freedom and human rights.  Hard to believe, but it was a fellow Jew,  the Israeli war hero Moshe Dayan, who bears the responsibility for the current status quo.

Up until 1917, the Temple Mount had been controlled by the Ottoman Empire.  In 1948, when Jordan seized the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Jordan transferred responsibility for the Temple Mount compound to itself.  Jews were not allowed to visit the Temple Mount while Jordan exercised control from 1948 to 1967.  With the retaking of the Temple Mount during the Six Day War in June 1967, Jews finally had control of the site of their two temples–for the first time in two thousand years.

But then Dayan, Israel’s defense minister at the time, in a stunning decision, relinquished control of the Temple Mount back to Jordan, reasoning thus:  for Muslims, the mount was a “Muslim prayer mosque” while for the Jews, the Temple Mount was no more than an “historical site of commemoration of the past…one should not hinder the Arabs from behaving there as they now do.”

Dayan’s first act on the Temple Mount was to have the flag removed that Israeli paratroopers had raised there.  Next, he cleared out the paratroop company that was supposed to remain permanently stationed on the northern part of the Temple Mount. Then,  he forbade Jewish prayer and worship on the compound (although he insisted that Jews could visit the site).  He left the Mount and its management in the hands  of the Islamic Religious Endowments Authority, or Waqf.  (The Waqf is entirely controlled and funded by the Jordanian government.) Jordan would continue to have control over what happened on the Temple Mount, while Israel would be responsible for security around the perimeter of the esplanade. Dayan believed that, by relinquishing control of the Temple Mount to the Jordanian Waqf,  he would avoid a larger conflagration with the Muslim world.

For Israel to put metal detectors on the Temple Mount was a sign,  in the eyes of many Muslims, that Israel had wrested control of the Temple Mount from the Muslim Waqf–an unlawful act.

Dayan’s magnanimous concession to the Muslim world in 1967–continued control over the Temple Mount–did not win the Jewish state any friends in the neighbourhood in the ensuing years.  Given the obvious lack of control by the waqf overseer two weeks ago, leaving the Temple Mount in the hands of a dubious ‘peace partner’ is likely to lead to a larger conflagration, just the opposite of what Moshe Dayan intended.  The status quo is no longer tenable.

 

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(This is the most volatile piece of real estate on the planet:  Temple Mount /Haram al-Sharif). This picture of the Temple Mount with its prominent Dome of the Rock was taken on my recent visit to Israel.  As I had been up on Temple Mount on a previous trip, I decided to stay down below at the Western Wall.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Fig Tree without Figs

No, not mine; my fig tree continues to thrive.  I’m already contemplating what to do with the growing figs–all four of them–when they are ripe:  Will I eat them raw, or will I grill them?  And when will they be ripe enough to eat?  I squeeze them every few days to check (probably not a good idea).

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(This is a photo of my fig tree taken today.)

As I watch the figs on my fig tree grow bigger with each passing day, I’m reminded of another fig tree in the Bible: the one that Jesus encountered on the road between Bethany and Jerusalem during what has come to be called  ‘Passion Week’. The encounter is described in both Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels (Mt  21:18-19, 20-22; Mk 11:12-14, 20-25).  The encounter went like this:  As Jesus was returning to Jerusalem after spending the night in Bethany, he became hungry.  Spotting a lone fig tree by the side of the road, he went over to it to get some figs to eat, but he found no fruit on the tree, only leaves.

Until I had a fig tree growing in my own backyard, I had no idea just how unusual that would be.  As I observed my own tree after the period of winter dormancy had ended, I noticed little green swellings–immature figs; leaves made their appearance after.  This growth pattern would be true of the fig trees that grew in Judaea as well.

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(This is what my fig tree looked like back in April.  Jesus’ encounter with the barren fig tree occurred just prior to the Passover in the Hebrew month of Nisan (our March/April).

If there were leaves on the fig tree encountered by Jesus, there should have been evidence of fruit.  Finding no fruit, Jesus said to the tree: “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” (Mk 11:14). In Matthew’s account, the fig tree withered immediately (21:19).  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples observe the withered tree the next morning as they head back into Jerusalem (11:20). At first glance, Jesus’ destruction of the fig tree seems like a gross over-reaction.  After all, as Mark notes, Jesus found nothing but leaves for it was not the season for figs (11:13).  The first crop of figs does not ripen until June.

To make sense of Jesus’ harsh reaction, Bible scholars suggest that we think of it as a prophetic gesture, or sign-action.  Hebrew prophets not infrequently dramatized their messages in order to get their points across. Often their actions took bizarre forms.  Consider Jeremiah, for example, who was directed by the Lord to buy an earthenware jar, then take some of the elders and some of the senior priests, and together go out to the valley of Ben-hinnon.  There, Jeremiah was to break the jar in front of them to illustrate how God was going to break the people and the city of Jerusalem in judgment (Jer 19:1-15).

Jesus’ prophetic gesture was directed at a fig tree in the company of his disciples.  Why a fig tree?  The answer lies in the writings of the Hebrew prophets Jeremiah, Hosea, Joel, and Micah where Israel is not infrequently pictured as a fig tree.  In the book of Hosea, God says:  “I found Israel like grapes in the wilderness; / I saw your forefathers as the earliest fruit on the fig tree in its first season” (9:10).  In Joel, God calls Israel “my fig tree” (1:7).

History confirms that Jesus’ destruction of the fig tree was indeed a prophetic sign-action.  In AD 70, thirty-seven years after Jesus’ crucifixion (believed to have taken place in AD 33), Roman armies penetrated Jerusalem’s walls, destroying the Temple and razing the city. Not one stone of the magnificent Temple was left standing on another, just as Jesus had predicted (Mk 13:2). Sixty-five years later,  in AD 135, the Roman emperor Hadrian founded a pagan city, Aelia Capitolina, on the ruins of Jerusalem.  Jews were forbidden access to the new city built now according to Hellenistic plans.  Where the Jewish Temple once stood, Hadrian had a temple erected to the pagan god Jupiter Capitolinus.  And, in order to erase all Jewish connection to the land, Hadrian renamed what was once the Roman province of Judea as Syria Palaestina.  The fig tree had indeed withered to its very roots!

That Jesus’ ‘cursing’ of the fig tree was a predictive act is clear.  That said, it was obviously an indictment of Israel’s spiritual barrenness as well.  Not only had Israel’s religious leaders failed to recognize Jesus as their Messiah, they had become his fiercest opponents.  There was an outward display of religiosity–like the showy leaves on the fig tree–but no faith.  That would be true of many churches today as well.

As I read the story of the withered fig tree, I can’t help but think how differently I must view it compared to someone reading it in, say, 1017 or 1517 or 1917.  Unlike earlier generations of Bible-readers, I am part of that generation which has witnessed the return of the Jewish people to their historic homeland; the creation of the modern state of Israel; and the re-taking of Jerusalem.  To me, these events say that the story of God’s ‘fig tree’, Israel, is still unfolding.

 

 

 

 

Betrayal at the UN

In eighteen days time, Barack Hussein Obama’s presidency will have ended and President-elect Trump will have been installed as the 45th president of the USA.  By now, many have likely forgotten how Pres. Obama, in office for only a few months and before he had accomplished anything of note, was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.  Widely criticized for their choice of recipients, the Norwegian Nobel Committee justified their selection of the fledgling US president thus:  It was because Pres. Obama had “created a new climate in international politics.”  (The award was intended, as much as anything, as a rejection of the foreign policies of Pres. Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush.)

In 2009, Pres. Obama hadn’t as yet created the “new climate in international politics” that the Norwegian Nobel Committee believed he had.  But that is not the case eight years later.  Just look around at the world he leaves for his successor.  The world’s greatest exporter of terrorism, Iran, is billions of dollars wealthier, courtesy of the US.   An ascendant Russia now ‘calls the shots’, literally, in the Middle East, thanks to a leader content to “lead from behind.”

Not only has Pres. Obama empowered two of the biggest threats to the West and, ultimately, to world peace–Iran and Russia–he has abandoned the one and only true democracy in the Middle East, Israel.  It had been a longstanding tradition that when the United nations Security Council (UNSC) attempted to pass resolutions targeting Israel over the issue of so-called ‘settlements’, the US as one of the permanent members would use its veto power, and thus the resolution would fail to pass.  On 23 December 2016, the Obama administration, breaking with tradition, abstained rather than using its veto power, thereby allowing UNSC resolution 2334 to pass.

This unprecedented abstention will have far-reaching consequences.  Resolution 2334, unlike previous resolutions, calls for Israel not only to withdraw to the pre-June 1967 borders, but to withdraw from East Jerusalem.  Consider what such a withdrawal would mean for the Jewish people:  It would mean abandoning the Temple Mount, site of the First and Second Temples; it would mean forsaking the Western Wall where Jews pray; it would mean turning over to the Palestinians the entire Jewish Quarter of the city, including the cemetery on the Mount of Olives, the Hadassah Hospital and Hebrew University on Mt. Scopus.  Resolution 2334 calls for the Jewish people to deny their historic and religious connections to Jerusalem.  It calls for Israel to do the unthinkable!

 

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(Personal photo taken on a trip to Israel in 2014)

Israelis remember all too well what life was like when Jordan occupied the same territory (1948-67).  During the 1948 war between the nascent Jewish state and its Arab neighbours, Jordan seized control of the west bank of the Jordan River as well as the Old City of Jerusalem.  Jordan’s seizure and annexation of this territory, interestingly, was viewed as an illegal act by the Arab League; Britain recognized it.  The 1949 Armistice Agreement that ended the war was supposed to give Israelis access to their religious sites in the Old City/East Jerusalem, but Jordan never honoured the agreement.  Israelis were barred from entering the Old City; some 58 ancient synagogues in the Jewish Quarter were either desecrated or destroyed; and tombstones from the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives were used to build army barracks and even latrines for the Jordanian army.  Slum dwellings were allowed to abut the Western  Wall where Jews once prayed.  The site most sacred to Jews worldwide came to resemble a garbage dump.

Contrast Israel’s treatment of religious sites today with that of Jordan’s.  In Israel, all religious groups are allowed administration over their own holy sites.  The administration of the Temple Mount has been retained by the Islamic Waqf, as it has been for centuries.

Because the US president abandoned Israel at the UN, expect to see more boycotts, divestment, and sanctions placed on Israel goods (economic warfare); more Israelis and their supporters hauled up before the International Criminal Court (lawfare); and, ominously, anticipate even more resistance a.k.a. terrorist attacks.  The Palestinian Arabs have had their claims to East Jerusalem affirmed by the UN Security Council, so why bother to negotiate with the Israeli government?

With the West’s enemies empowered and Israel abandoned at the UN, war is more likely now after eight years of an Obama presidency than before. This is the new climate in international politics created by the 2009 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize:  Pres. Obama.

 

The Iran Deal Brings Us Closer to Midnight

With the signing of the deal between the P5 plus 1 world powers and Iran, the world can “breathe a sigh of relief,” says Russia’s President Vladimir Putin:  this, from the leader who, in an act of aggression on a scale not seen since the 1930s, annexed Crimea just over a year ago.  And why wouldn’t Putin be upbeat at the signing of the deal?  Russia has come out a winner:  the deal ends the isolation of Iran, Russia’s key ally in the Middle east; it allows Russia a major role in developing Iran’s civilian nuclear program; and it reopens the arms market to Russia.  President Obama, apparently, was surprised at Putin’s co-operation in helping to achieve a deal with the Iranians!

Has anyone bothered to adjust the minute hand on the Doomsday Clock since the deal was announced, I wonder?  the Doomsday Clock, that symbolic clock-face which represents the countdown to a global catastrophe?  The closer the minute hand to midnight, the closer the world is to a global disaster.  Set up in 1947 by atomic scientists, the Doomsday Clock, hanging on a wall in the University of Chicago, originally represented the threat to the world of a global nuclear conflagration.  The threat has been expanded to include climate change (but of course).  The minute hand of the clock was last moved on 22 January 2015 when it was set to three minutes to midnight.

If I were given the task of resetting the minute hand, I know where I would move it:  I would move it closer to midnight (despite Putin’s assurance that the world can now breathe more easily).  Four days before signing the deal, Iran celebrated Quds Day.  Held annually on the last Friday of Ramadan, Quds, or Jerusalem, Day was inaugurated by the late Ayatollah Khomeini in August 1979 as a way to express solidarity with the Palestinians, and to demonstrate Iran’s opposition to the very existence of Israel.  Sponsored and organized by the Iranian government, Quds Day celebrations typically draw thousands into Iran’s public squares where they chant “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”; trample on US and Israeli flags; and incinerate effigies of America’s and Israel’s leaders.  Such fun!  You would have thought Quds Day would be different this year in Tehran, that there would have been some attempt by the government to restrain the rabble in some way, with negotiations between P5 plus 1 and Iran coming down ‘to the wire’.  Wrong.  There were the same calls for America’s and Israel’s destruction.  Protesters set dummies of President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu on fire.  Not only did the government not restrain the crowds, Iran’s President Rouhani was present and raised no objection to what was going on.  Neither did the Obama administration, desperate for a deal above all else.

Iran’s intention to destroy Israel continues unabated.  If anything, the deal has turned Iran into a much more formidable foe of Israel.  No longer crippled by economic sanctions and armed by Russia, Iran will pose an even greater existential threat to Israel.  And with Russia as its ally and arms dealer, why would Iran need to develop a nuclear bomb anyway, since Russia possesses an entire arsenal of nuclear bombs?  People were shocked when US Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford recently claimed that Russia presents the greatest threat to [US] national security. If that’s the case,  just imagine, then, what Iran and Russia, working together, could do to destabilize the Middle East, indeed, the whole world.  No, President Putin, the world definitely cannot breathe more easily now.

Pope Francis, ‘Palestine’, and the ‘Angel of Peace’

The news that Pope Francis is getting set to officially recognize the ‘State of Palestine’ has left Israelis along with many supporters of the Jewish state disappointed and angry.  That the Vatican was moving in this direction has been apparent for some time, however.  In 2012, the UN General Assembly voted to recognize ‘Palestine’ as a ‘non-member observer state’.  (The only other state granted this status is the Vatican City.)  Ever since then, the Vatican has referred to the ‘state of Palestine’ in all its communications.  During his visit to Israel last year, Pope Francis referred to Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority (PA), as the leader of the ‘state of Palestine’.

The agreement that the Vatican intends to sign with the non-existent ‘state of Palestine’ covers the activities and the legal status of the Catholic Church in the West Bank and Gaza.  (Arab Christians make up 10 % of the population of the West Bank.)  When signed, the accord will essentially recognize Gaza and the West Bank as a country of its own.

Am I surprised that the pope intends to recognize ‘Palestine’?  No, in part because I have just finished reading David Kertzer’s latest work, The Pope and Mussolini:  The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for biography-autobiography.  (This is a fascinating read and I highly recommend it.)  Drawing on material in the Vatican archives formerly unavailable to researchers, Kertzer provides fresh insights into the collaboration that occurred between pope and Fascist dictator in the 1920s and 1930s:  a collaboration which led, among others things, to the founding of the nation-state known as Vatican City.  The Vatican, understandably, avoids drawing attention to the part played by Benito Mussolini in the creation of its nation-state.

Collaboration with Mussolini was the price Pope Pius XI was willing to pay in order to regain the power and prestige lost by the Catholic Church when Italy became a unified kingdom.  In 1871, at the time of unification, the so-called ‘papal states’ were swallowed up and incorporated into the new Kingdom of Italy. For the next 58 years a succession of popes, incensed at the loss of their territory and thus their power base, refused to recognize a united Italy.  Things changed in 1929, however, when Mussolini indicated a willingness to cut a deal with the papacy.  On February 11, the Italian state and the Holy See (the Vatican’s ecclesiastical designation) signed the Lateran Accords.  The accords consisted of three parts:  a political treaty, a financial convention, and a concordat.  The political treaty ceded territory to the papacy for its own sovereign state to be known  as the Vatican City.  The financial convention awarded substantial financial reparations to the Vatican.  And the concordat granted the Roman Catholic church extensive rights and exclusive privileges.  Roman Catholicism, for instance, was declared the sole religion of Italy.  The accords were signed by Mussolini himself on behalf of the Kingdom of Italy.

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(Photo courtesy Pikabay)

The Vatican City is the world’s smallest nation-state.  It is also called the Holy See, which is its ecclesiastical designation; Vatican City is its political and diplomatic designation. Its area is .44 sq. km.  As of July 2014, its population was 842.  Its form of government is an absolute monarchy, with the pope holding all legislative, executive, and judicial power.

The signing of the Lateran Accords made news worldwide at the time.  An article in the Tuesday, February 12, 1929 edition of The New York Times noted how

[t]he Pope is again an independent sovereign ruler, as he was throughout the Middle Ages, though his temporal realm, established today, is the most microscopic independent State in the world and probably the smallest in all history.

An elated Pope Pius XI, who regarded Mussolini as heaven-sent, gushed,

“The times called for a man such as he whom Providence has ordained that We should meet….It is with profound satisfaction that We express the belief that We have given God to Italy and Italy to God.”

Little did the pope suspect that he had just handed Italy over to another god:  the god of war.

What did Mussolini gain from cutting a deal with the Vatican?  Il Duce (‘the leader’ in Italian) gained the support of a grateful Catholic Church, support which in turn granted the Fascist regime newfound respect and legitimacy.  In 1920s Italy, one could be both a good Catholic and a committed Fascist member at one and the same time, it was believed.  Only later, as Mussolini’s Italy began increasingly to resemble its ally Nazi Germany, did Pope Pius XI develop grave reservations about his support for Il Duce.  Unfortunately, the pope died before he could undo any of the damage.

I believe that Pope Francis is about to make an equally grievous misjudgment.  The pontiff is going to recognize as a nation-state a place which provides a safe base from which to stage terrorist attacks on innocent victims; a place where those who murder and maim Jews are called “heroes” and “martyrs”; a place where children are taught in their textbooks and schools and at their summer camps to hate Jews; a place where youth are told they will one day conquer and reoccupy the whole of Israel; a place where parks and stadiums are named in honour of suicide-murderers.  And this is only the West Bank!

Today, the pope held a private audience with Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority (a president whose term of office expired a number of years ago, incidentally).  As is customary at the end of an audience such as this, the two exchanged gifts.  Abbas gave the pope relics of the two Arab nuns from Ottoman-era Palestine who are to be canonized by the Catholic Church tomorrow.  The pope, in his turn, gave Abbas a medallion that represented the angel of peace destroying the bad spirit of war.  As he handed him the medallion, the pope reportedly told Abbas the gift was appropriate because he, Abbas, was “an angel of peace.”

But correctly identifying angels can be a tricky business, the pope must know.  As Scripture tells us, even Satan himself may appear as an “angel of light.”