One difference between Pope John Paul II's pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2000 and Pope Benedict's visit over the past week is that Benedict's homilies and speeches are translated into Arabic on the Vatican Web site. In retrospect, it seems obvious, since that's the language of the local Christian community. But it wasn't done in 2000.Benedict made a strong effort to speak to the Arab world on this trip. I haven't made a line-for-line comparison of their remarks, but my sense is that Benedict was more pointed than John Paul was in his defense of the Palestinian people. Linda Sheahen of Catholic Relief Service noted on the Caritas blog that the pope surprised many by bringing up the issue of Palestinian statehood immediately after arriving in Tel Aviv. When he visited the Aida Palestinian refugee camp, he referred specifically to May 1948, when the Palestinians were driven from their villages, "and the years of conflict, as yet unresolved, that followed from those events." He also decried the Israeli-built security wall. And, as Reuters religion editor Tom Heneghan notes, the pope has shown that "he is slowly learning how to dialogue with Muslims," recognizing the "common word" the two faiths share.This may turn out to be the most significant aspect of the trip - more so than the debate on whether the pope should have spoken more personally about the Holocaust. One must suspect that at least some of the negative reaction in Israel was driven by the pope's take on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Or, as an editorial in the Jerusalem Post put it, "The past week showed that on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Pope Benedict XVI just doesn't get it. " But maybe he does.
Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses.