A POPE with an exceptional propensity for slipping on banana skins
has made a sure-footed start to one of the trickiest journeys of his
four-year papacy, an eight-day tour of the Holy Land. On Monday May
11th Benedict XVI touched down in Tel Aviv for the second leg of his
journey-five days in Israel and the Palestinian territories, home of
most of the Christian faith’s important sites.
The pope’s trip began in Jordan on Friday. And the ease with which
the visit has progressed so far may be because members of the Jordanian
royal family, who hosted him on the initial leg of his journey, are
strong advocates of Christian-Muslim amity. They were therefore keener
than anybody to ensure that the visit of Benedict XVI went without a
In Jordan, the royal family’s religious adviser Prince Ghazi bin
Mohammed welcomed the “regret” expressed by the pope over the hurt
caused by his lecture of September 2006, in which he cited the
anti-Muslim words of a Byzantine emperor. The prince also thanked Pope
Benedict for his gracious response to the “Common Word”—a high-profile effort by Muslim scholars to improve Christian-Muslim relations through theological dialogue.
Speaking at Jordan’s state mosque, Prince Ghazi went about as far as
any devout Muslim could in stressing the commonality between the two
monotheistic faiths: he noted that Muslims, like Christians, refer to
Jesus as the Messiah, literally the anointed one. The prince welcomed
Pope Benedict “as a simple pilgrim of peace who comes in humility and
gentleness” to a Jordanian site which has been associated with the
Baptism of Christ since the dawn of the Christian era.
This hints at another reason Jordan has for ensuring that this leg
of the pope’s visit passed off successfully. The country is keen to
welcome the legions of Christian tourists that flood to the Holy Lands
every year. Jordan too can boast of sites of great significance to
Christians. Despite competing claims the Vatican itself declared the
site in the country to be the place of Jesus’s baptism.
After the warm welcome in Jordan the pope faces a much trickier time
in Israel and in Bethlehem, a stronghold of Palestinian Christianity on
the West Bank which the pope is due to visit on Wednesday. He cannot
count on a similar level of official emollience from the authorities of
Israel or the West Bank.
On Monday he was met at the airport by Israel’s president, Shimon
Peres, and prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, before travelling to
Jerusalem and a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial site. His
words and gestures at that site will be watched carefully. The Catholic
church has an unfortunate record of anti-Semitism that it has spent
recent decades trying to atone for. Even until the 1960s the official
Catholic line was that the Jews were to blame for the death of Jesus.
The previous pope, John Paul II, made an historic apology for the
wrongs done to Jews by Catholics over the centuries. Yet many Jews
believe that the Vatican has not gone far enough and are furious at
Vatican efforts to make the war-time pope, Pius XII, a saint. Many Jews
still accuse the Vatican under Pius of having been too passive during
Pope Benedict’s own (admittedly non-voluntary) war-time membership
of the Hitler Youth has hardly helped to convince sceptical Jews that
the Catholic church is sincere in its efforts to mend fences. Nor did
his lifting of the excommunication this year of a bishop who had denied
the Holocaust. Church officials subsequently claimed that the pope knew
nothing of the bishop’s unsavoury views and later Benedict made a
strong condemnation of Holocaust denial.
The pope’s condemnation of anti-Semitism on landing in Israel was a
clear attempt to heal these wounds: “Sadly anti-Semitism continues to
rear its ugly head in many parts of the world…This is totally
unacceptable. Every effort must be made to combat anti-Semitism
wherever it is found.” And he offered some words on the conflict
between Israel and the Palestinians: “I hope and pray that the climate
of greater trust can soon be created that will enable the parties to
make real progress along the road to peace and stability.” They could
just as well refer to the Vatican and its relations with all those it
has offended since Benedict XVI took office.