Israel (MNN) — Israel is the central focus of the upcoming weekend pilgrimage to the Middle East by Pope Francis. His mission could be titled “Operation Coexistence” as he intends to bring Middle Eastern Christians, Muslims, and Jews together in peaceful dialogue and cohabitation.
Pope Francis is beginning his journey by visiting Syrian refugees in Jordan on Saturday. Then, he’s heading to Israel to talk with religious leaders in Bethlehem, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem.
Tom Doyle of E3 Partners hopes for serious discussions, too.
“If the issue can be brought up with significant Muslim leaders about how fundamentalists–not all Muslims, but fundamentalist Muslims–are persecuting Christians, then that is a good thing; we pray that that would happen.”
However, some serious challenges are posing a threat to the “success” of Pope Francis’s visit.
Jews v. Christians
While historic events like the Crusades and Spanish Inquisition may be “old news” to many Western believers, “The Jewish people have a long history; and things that happened 1,000 years ago seem like they’re last week,” explains Doyle.
“Because of World War II and really, 2,000 years of ‘bad blood’ between the Church and Jews… [they] have really bad feelings when it comes to the word ‘Christian.'”
The Crusades are often remembered as a Christian campaign against Muslims living in the Holy Land. But there was also a massive massacre of Jews living in the Rhineland in 1096.
“They [European Crusaders] went into a Jewish synagogue…put Jewish women and men and children into the synagogue, chained it so they couldn’t get out, lit it on fire, and then marched around it singing, ‘Christ We Adore Thee,'” shares Doyle.
“That’s part of the history resident with Christianity that we as believers need to erase.”
Hundreds of years later, the Spanish Inquisition once again brought Jews into the cross-hairs of European Christians. Around 200,000 Jews were driven from Spain in 1492; they often met violent deaths at the hands of Spaniards.
“For centuries, there has been just this hurt and anger toward people that call themselves Christians. The biggest hurt would probably be World War II,” notes Doyle. “That’s probably the biggest event that is fresh in Jewish minds.”
Some six million Jews suffered horrific deaths at the hands of Nazi forces during World War II and the Holocaust. Supporters of war-era Pope Pius XII praise the Catholic leader’s provision of aid and sanctuary to Jews, while critics claim the Pope effectively did nothing to stop the Nazi bloodbath.
Muslims v. Christians
While WWII doesn’t hold the same significance for modern Muslims as it does for Jews, the Crusades are a significantly sore spot for many followers of Islam. Muslims won control of the Holy Land in the end, but two centuries of Crusade battles resulted in the ruthless slaughter of multitudes and a permanent Christian-Muslim divide.
In 2014, the tides seem to be turning for Middle Eastern Muslims. Christians are leaving the Middle East en masse, largely driven out by persecution. According to the Pew Research Center, persecution of Christians in the Middle East and North Africa outweighed any other region in 2012.
“The present problems within the Middle East and this so-called ‘Christian exodus’ is mainly due to Islamic violence toward Christians,” notes Doyle.
Over the past year, Coptic Christians have become an easy scapegoat for unrest in Egypt, crucifixion of Christians is commonplace in Syria, and believers are facing stiffer punishments inside the walls of Iran’s notorious prisons.
“All of these terrible things were happening, and that was kind of just a typical month last year,” says Doyle. Fast-forward a year, and “it’s just getting worse and worse.
“This is not always governmental pressure, but definitely religious pressure from fundamentalist imams and jihadists.”
So, what’s a Christian to do?
“We have a lot of work to do when it comes to relations between believers and people of Israel,” Doyle notes.
As E3 workers and national believers work to remedy interfaith relations in their communities, you can support their efforts through prayer. First, pray for the Pope’s upcoming pilgrimage. Pray that his visit will have a positive outcome for believers in the Middle East.
“Many Jews and many Arab Muslims would think that the Pope kind of speaks for all Christians,” Doyle observes. “They see the cross, whatever variety that might be within denominational circles, and they just assume that we’re all together.”
“We just need our believers to pray,” says Doyle. “This is about lives, this is about souls, and this is about nations. We’re praying for major breakthroughs all throughout the Middle East.”