Pope Francis's initiative may not work immediately but it is an important first step

The Pope’s recent initiative, bringing together the President of Israel, and the President of the Palestinian Authority, in a meeting for prayer in the Vatican gardens, with the participation too of the Patriarch of Constantinople, as reported in this paper, is an event of considerable significance in the search for peace in the Holy Land.

Some have already dismissed it as a publicity stunt, which betrays a superficial judgement. It is true that bringing together Mahmoud Abbas and Shimon Perez is nothing per se remarkable. These two men are wise, and knowing the situation as they do, they are both, I am sure, convinced about the necessity of a peaceful solution to the problem of the Holy Land. To talk to them about the need for peace is to preach to the converted. The ones who need to be told about the necessity of peace are the people who were not in the Vatican gardens, namely the radical nationalists on both sides. But it is to these radicals that the prayer meeting is addressed.

Nationalism is a dangerous creed. Some years ago I had a conversation with Andrew Duff, who was then the Liberal Democrat MEP for the East of England; we talked about Kant, and Mr Duff said in the course of conversation that he and his party were implacably opposed to nationalism of every type; that nationalism was on the rise, and that it was a very dangerous ideology that would lead to war. I didn’t think so at the time, but I now realise that he was right, and prophetic. Nationalism has led to war, in Europe itself, as Russian nationalists, not for the first time, launch attacks on a former Soviet republic.

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If nationalism is the problem, what is the solution? The answer lies in challenging the closed mindset of the nationalist who put the claims of his own nationality above those of others. And this is where religion can play an important part. Clearly, Catholicism is an internationalist religion, and as such much challenge the idea that anyone nation is especially privileged. Again, the Patriarch has warned very explicitly about the dangers of nationalism and how they are antithetical to religion. It is also true, or so it seems to this outsider, that nationalism runs counter to the authentic spirit of Judaism and Islam, though, of course, that is something that we need to hear from Jews and Muslims, not from me.

How should a Catholic react when tempted to the sin of nationalism, that is to think that his own nation state has special privileges that are granted to no other?

In the first place he should reflect that God in His wisdom and providence let nation states, his own and others, be established; but none of these states exist of divine right. There was a time when the United Kingdom did not exist, and there will come a time when it will no longer exist. States and nations are contingent, not necessary. (Incidentally, this applies to all states, everywhere, and to Israel as well, as the Old Testament makes clear.)

Secondly he needs to realise that the foreigner, the other, is not so very other, being created by God, and called by God in the same way as himself. Thought of the universal love of God, poured out on all and for all, is a necessary antidote to the demonisation of the other.

If all people in the Middle East could pray in their own way, they would surely see, in the light of their reflections, that Jews are not monsters, and that Arabs are not monsters. Furthermore neither the state of Israel nor the Palestinian authority is some sort of Satanic construct. This would be the first step in moving from enmity to brotherhood.

Of course some do not want to make that move. Hence we have the very sad story of the Egyptian professor who took a field trip to Auschwitz being forced to resign amidst clamorous protest. And one understands why. Auschwitz tells us that the Jews are human. Admit that, and it becomes difficult to hate them; hence all sympathy is to be guarded against, as it will undermine the idea of never-ending war, in which some people have such an interest.

Prayer, leading to enlightenment from God, leading to human sympathy, serving as a necessary precondition for peace: that seems to be the Pope’s idea. I don’t say it will work any time soon. But I do think without such a journey nothing else will.

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