How Much Clout Does Pope Francis Have In The Middle East?

The pontiff made a symbolic gesture when he visited the Middle East recently, adding his presence to peace and reconciliation efforts. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli talks more about the visit.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR news on Michel Martin. It was a holiday weekend for millions of Americans but on the other side of the world Pope Francis was on a mission. He visited the Middle East to add his voice and presence to efforts to achieve peace and reconciliation. We wanted to know more about this visit so we called a person whose voice will be familiar to you. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR's senior European correspondent. Sylvia welcome back thank so much for joining us once again.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Well, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now this isn't the first time that a pope has visited the Holy Land, of course, but there were a number of dimensions to this trip that many people saw as historic, right?

POGGIOLI: Absolutely. I think, first of all, the fact is that he is - his entourage - I think it's the first time that a pope brought with him two good friends from his native Argentina - a rabbi, Rabbi Abraham Skorka, with whom Pope Francis has written a book, and a Muslim leader, Omar Abboud, with whom he has been dealing a great deal on interreligious affairs. So I think this already immediately set a stage for something completely new. He's coming in a way with a clean slate.

MARTIN: And it's also the first time that a pope has led in the West Bank, right, rather than Tel Aviv. He also visited a Palestinian refugee camp. And he traveled from Ahmad directly to the West Bank city of Bethlehem. What was the purpose of these particular gestures?

POGGIOLI: Well, there were certainly several important nods to the Palestinians. As you said, he was the first who flew directly from Ahmad to the West Bank to Bethlehem rather than going through Israel. And the Vatican officially referred to the visiting as to the state of Palestine which also France's repeated that phrase.

Now, the Vatican has long been in favor of a two-state solution but this was an extra boost in support of the Palestinian bid for full statehood. And he also did something else - he did an unscripted stop at the Israeli barrier wall which Palestinians see as a symbol of Israeli oppression. He stopped there - he rested his forehead against the concrete wall and prayed. And that was certainly very moving for the Palestinians.

MARTIN: And he also met with refugees from the Syrian war.

POGGIOLI: Absolutely, that was in Jordan. That was an important visit because many also of these refugees are Christians and they are people fleeing the Civil War. This was a double event because it was important for Pope Francis to make an appeal for religious freedom in the region that because, you know, the number of Christians are really dwindling. In the last 20 years they've gone something like from 20 percent of the population of the Middle East to maybe five, four percent . So that was important.

He also made an appeal - he thanked Jordan very much for helping refugees and he made an appeal to the world to not abandon Jordan - which is handling something like an official number of 600,000 Syrian refugees which would be 10 percent of the Jordanian population but some people say it they may be many more - one-point three million. So the refugees were a key - one of the key aspects of his first day on this trip of the Middle East.

MARTIN: He has issued an invitation to involve himself in the middle peace talks. Could you tell us a little bit more about that.

POGGIOLI: He invited the Israeli and Palestinian president, Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas, to join him in prayer at the Vatican for an end to their conflict, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It seems it will take place next week. On the plane, he was asked about this - he said it's not a mediation effort just a joint prayer. And he said it would have been best for to happen in the region but it would have been impossible to find the right place so I said I decided to invite them to my home in the Vatican.

Now, it seems very unlikely that Pres. Peres, the Israeli president, will receive a mandate from the Prime Minister Netanyahu to negotiate with Abbas on renewing direct talks which collapsed just about a month ago. So it's going to be more ,you know, a very symbolic event a great photo op ,of course, but it's also at the end of Shimon Pares's mandate so it's not likely it's going to lead to a resumption of talks.

MARTIN: How so? And if you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Sylvia Poggioli. She's NPR's senior European correspondent. She really needs no introduction but that who she is if you just tuned in. what is the symbolic important of this?

POGGIOLI: Well, I think to go back to the fact that this is the first non-European pope - I think he brings a very interesting and new element in his encounter with Jews and Muslims. Contrary to John Paul the second - Polish born he carried the weight, the legacy of his countries. He certainly was not an anti-Samnite but Poland had a very heavy legacy. It would be impossible for Jews to meet to Pope John Paul II and not speak about that problem.

Same goes with Pope Benedict - Joseph Ratzinger, the German. He also carried the weight of his country's past. This does not happen with Francis. He comes from Argentina he really appears with a clean state. Nobody can blame them for the Holocaust - or on the Muslim side for the Crusades.

In fact, last year in his very first foray into international diplomacy, in a sense, it was Pope Francis who, you know, intervened when it look like the Western powers wanted to intervene in Syria. He called a day of prayer and meditation on Syria. The fact that here a Catholic leader intervened against the Western powers bombing a Muslim state gained him a lot of credibility in the Islamic world.

MARTIN: It's interesting that just in reading kind of the American media it had an element of surprise. I mean, obviously, a visit like this - this is a visit of a head of state. It's planned people know where he's going to go and what he's going to do. But there was still an element of surprise, I think, that he spoke so strongly and so directly about some of these issues. What do you think some of the upshot is going to be?

POGGIOLI: Well, I think we have to now remember that there's a certain narrative around Pope Francis which is, you know, he's very popular. He's very well-liked. Even when you have some doubts about some things that may be he hasn't changed doctrine as much as some liberal Catholics would like, you know. He comes with a tremendous amount of popularity.

So I think that's - there's a lot of benevolence. And you're right. It was a very short trip no huge surprises other than this stopping at the wall and he also went off-script at onepoint when he met the refugees, denouncing arms dealers calling the arms trade a root of evil and hatred and the love of money. And he said let's pray for these criminals who are selling weapons, fueling hatred that they will convert. So nothing terribly surprising but he just - it stirs a lot of sympathy.

MARTIN: Finally, you know, on the way back he spoke out against another significant issue in the life of the church. He talked about the sexual abuse of children and he announced that he will be meeting with some of the victims or past victims of sexual abuse by clergy. Could you talk a little bit about that?

POGGIOLI: He said he was going to meet, sometime next month in June, with a group of victims - sex abuse victims several of them Europeans. And he would meet them in where he stays in the Vatican, in his residence and he would hold a mass with them. He also said that three bishops are currently under investigation. He did not say which ones but he said it there would be absolutely zero tolerance. He forcefully denounced clerical sex abuse of minors. And he compared it to a satanic black mass. Pretty powerful language.

MARTIN: How is that move being perceived? I take it there have been calls for him to meet with victims before now - is this being seen as a bold step or a timid one?

POGGIOLI: Well I think several victims groups the best organized are certainly the United States. They have said this is just another gesture we still have to see something much more concrete. Pope Francis appointed recently a commission to tackle the issue of clerical sex abuse in the church. The head of it is Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston. And four of the eight members are women, one of them is ,herself, a survivor of sex abuse. But until something really happens until people really see that there's a definitive policy of handing over to law enforcement any cases of suspected abuse I think a lot of people are still holding their breath.

MARTIN: That was NPR senior European correspondent Sylvia Poggioli. We reached her in Rome. Sylvia thank you so much for speaking with us.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Michel.

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