By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Pope Benedict XVI politely left an inter-faith meeting in Jerusalem after a leading Palestinian cleric delivered a speech in which he attacked Israel for “killing Gaza’s children”, “bulldozing Palestinian homes” and “destroying mosques.”
The incident took place during a planned interfaith dialogue with the Pope and religious leaders of various faiths which took place at the Notre Dame Pontifical Institute in Jerusalem.
The Jerusalem Post reports that Sheikh Tavseer Tamimi, the chief Islamic judge in the Palestinian Authority, launched a 10-minute tirade against the state of Israel in which he condemned Israel for carrying out war crimes against the residents of Gaza. He also called on Christians and Muslims to unite against Israel.
Just before Tamimi’s impromptu speech, Pope Benedict addressed the gathering of several hundred people and spoke about the importance of religion and truth for the advancement of humanity’s mutual understanding.
When Tamimi began to speak, however, the Holy Father became visibly uncomfortable with the tone of the discourse. Fouad Twai, a Palestinian, who is the Latin Patriarch in the Holy Land, made several attempts to interrupt Tamimi but the sheikh would not be stopped from reading a written speech that had obviously been prepared in advance without the knowledge of the event organizers.
Following the diatribe and before the meeting was officially over, the pope shook Tamimi’s hand, then exited the premises.
Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, told the Post that Tamimi’s speech was not previewed by event organizers.
“In a meeting dedicated to dialogue, this intervention was a direct negation of what dialogue should be,” Fr. Lombardi said. “We hope that such incident will not damage the mission of the Holy Father aiming at promoting peace and interreligious dialogue as he has clearly affirmed on many occasions in this pilgrimage. We also hope that interreligious dialogue in the Holy Land will not be damaged by this incident.”
Some damage has already been done, however. Haifa Chief Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, the only Jewish representative on the stage with the pope, attacked Tamimi afterwards for “cynically exploiting the media opportunity to incite and disparage the State of Israel.”
Oded Weiner, director-general of the Chief Rabbinate, called Tamimi’s comments “scandalous” and said the Rabbinate was cutting off all ties with him.
“This unplanned speech embarrassed and was disrespectful toward our honored guest, the pope,” he said immediately after the speech. “While the pope comes on a mission of peace and brotherhood, Sheikh Tamimi comes with a message of war.”
The Foreign Ministry and Tourism Ministry released a joint statement saying it was “very unfortunate” that the sheikh took advantage of the event to “wildly incite against Israel.” The statement said that Israel condemned the comments, and that instead of furthering peace and dialogue, the sheikh chose to “sow division and hatred between Israel and the Palestinians, and Jews, Moslems and Christians.”
This is not the first time Tamimi has staged an attack against Israel during a papal visit. In March 2000, when Pope John Paul II visited the area, Tamimi used the occasion to call on Israel to “stop strangling Jerusalem and oppressing its residents.” After the speech, he refused to shake the hand of then-chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau.
Rev. Dr. Trond Bakkevig of the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land, the interfaith body that works with Tamimi, said he was “terribly sorry” about Tamimi’s speech. But he hoped that it would not shed a negative light on the entire evening.
“It is important that the whole evening is not just Tamimi’s speech,” said Bakkevig, who represented the (Lutheran) Church of Norway.
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