Eight centuries ago, during the 5th Crusade, Francis of Assisi traveled to Damietta, Egypt, hoping to negotiate peace between Crusaders and Saracens.
Francis, without regard for his personal safety, courageously crossed the desert to enter into dialogue with the commander of the Muslim forces, Sultan Malik. Francis was received respectfully as a man of faith and, although his mission was unsuccessful, stayed for some days and safely returned to Crusader lines.
Francis thus first encountered Islam and the Quran during that visit to Sultan Malik. In “Francis and Islam,” J. Hoeberichts writes, “It is this Quran which was the source of all good things which Francis discovered in the behavior of the Saracens and which made such an impression on him: their prayer, their faith, their respectful use of the word God. And since all these good things in the Quran did not come from the Saracens, but from God from whom all good comes, Francis wished to also respect the Quran.”
Ten years later, in 1229, Frederick II, king of Germany, Holy Roman emperor, falconer, Arabic scholar and devotee of Arabic poetry, successfully negotiated with the same Sultan Malik for the restitution of Jerusalem to Frederick’s Crusaders. Upon arriving in Jerusalem, Frederick was given a tour, including visits to the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, by Qadi Shams-al-Din, who later wrote that, as not to disturb the emperor, he instructed the muezzin not to call the morning prayer.
When the emperor awoke he asked the Qadi why he had not heard the call and was told what had been instructed.
“You should not have acted thus,” Frederick II replied. “For if I spend the night in Jerusalem it was above all to hear the muezzin’s call to prayer in the night.” Attitudes of such spiritual generosity as exhibited by Francis and Frederick were not common in their day and for centuries theological tensions between Muslims, Jews and Christians have kept them from fulfilling the imperatives of justice, peace and dignity commanded by their scriptures.
Last week, 800 years after his namesake set foot in Saracen lands, Pope Francis came to the still-contested, still-troubled Holy Land. For three days, in Jordan, Palestine and Israel, his message was clear: It is time for justice and peace — it’s time for Torah, Bible and Quran to join together in reconciliation — to serve God from whom all good comes.
That message was reinforced when the pope made an unscheduled stop at the graffiti-decorated Separation Wall that divides Bethlehem.
In that gesture, Francis’ acknowledgement of the injustice inflicted upon the Palestinians by rending them from their lands, I was reminded of Robert Frost’s: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Francis did not stop to honor the wall; I believe he stopped to acknowledge its existence and recognize it for what it is — an impediment to peace.
In his poem “Mending Wall,” Frost asks us what the Israelis should have asked:
“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out / And to whom I was like to give offense.” The wall is a contradiction. Originally conceived as a security barrier to protect Israelis from Palestinian violence and terrorism, it evolved into an instrument of control and oppression. It is not built along the pre-1967 War Green Line between Israel and Palestinians — it veers into Palestinian territory and sweeps large illegal settlement blocs onto Israel’s side of the wall. It sometimes cuts Palestinians’ communities in half, often depriving them of access to their fields.
For example, both sides of the wall where Francis, dressed in white cassock, stopped for his now iconic photo-op, were Palestinian lands.
The wall is a barrier that separates Israelis from Palestinians — and Palestinians from Palestinians. It is a symbol of oppression — a towering wall in urban areas, a fence in others — monitored by watch towers and checkpoints.
And in one gesture — a gesture reflecting justice rather than peace — the wall trembled and tumbled.
And in one gesture, Francis argued that we must try to see others as they truly are.
As Frederick II noted, one does not travel to the Holy Land not to hear the muezzin’s call to prayer, the peeling of the church bells or the blast of the shofar. We travel to include, not to exclude.
The same Separation Wall made an appearance this year in the form of a Palestinian movie, “Omar,” that was one of five nominees for an Oscar for the year’s Best Foreign Language Film.
I don’t know if the pope is a moviegoer but I saw in his affirmation of the dignity and sovereignty of the Palestinian people, while reaffirming an unwavering commitment to Israel and its security, the vision of a screenwriter.
“Omar” is not an easy film to watch. It’s a deeply complex understanding of the exploitation and occupation of the Palestinians — and an understanding of what the occupation does to both the occupied and occupier. It’s about loss of innocence. On one hand it’s a love story of two young Arabs divided by a wall, by fear and suspicion, struggling to survive in a world over which they have no control; and on the other hand it’s about a relationship between a would-be informer and his Israeli handler, and the cost to both of them as their humanity is stripped away.
Yet, ironically, at the end of the pope’s pilgrimage was another wall — this one in Jerusalem. The Kotel, the Western Wall, the Wailing Wall — that which stands still as a remnant of the temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.
It is the most beautiful of walls, a wall that can transcend all hatred and distrust. It is a wall of the temple above which sits the Muslim Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque — irrevocably linked through time and space and light with the God from whom all good comes — and in a narrow space between those sacred rocks Francis tucked a hand-written copy of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father who art in heaven…” When New Hampshire’s Robert Frost wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall / That wants it down,” I’m sure he would have added a caveat “Except for the Kotel.”
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.