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Pope to Confront Myriad Challenges in Holy Land Trip

CITY — Pope Benedict XVI departs next Friday (May 8) for what promises
to be one of the most eventful and memorable events in his

reign: a week-long visit to the Holy Land, with stops in Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Benedict has presented the trip as first and foremost a pilgrimage to
the “places sanctified by (Jesus’) earthly passage,” but given the
powerful political and cultural tensions in the region, he is bound to
confront a number of volatile issues on the ground — including some
that have proved among the most controversial in his four-year papacy:

Jewish-Catholic relations

Benedict clearly hopes that his presence in Israel, less than four
months after the international furor over his readmission of the
Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson, will relieve any remaining
inter-religious tensions over the affair.

According to Israel’s ambassador to the Holy See, Mordechay Lewy, the
two sides have “overcome these difficulties and misunderstandings in
the best possible way”; and leading Israeli rabbis have welcomed the
papal visit.

Yet as Benedict’s own schedule demonstrates, sources of discord remain.
Though he will follow traditional practice for visiting leaders by
paying respects at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, Benedict
will not visit the adjacent museum, because its exhibits include a
photo caption critical of the war-time Pope Pius XII.

Critics argue that Pius failed to do all he could to stop the Nazi
genocide of the Jews, yet the Vatican is considering him for
beatification, one step below sainthood.

Muslim-Catholic relations

Benedict will open his trip with nearly three full days in the
Muslim-majority Kingdom of Jordan, where he will meet with Muslim
religious leaders and make his second visit to a mosque as pope.

Benedict will be staying much longer in Jordan than his predecessor,
Pope John Paul II, did during his own Holy Land pilgrimage in 2000. The
difference may reflect Benedict’s increased concern for dialogue with
Islam since September 2006, when he quoted a medieval description of
the religion as “evil and inhuman” and “spread by sword.”

That speech, which provoked sometimes violent protests throughout the
Muslim world, also led to an unprecedented three-day summit between
Catholic and Muslim religious leaders at the Vatican last November –
the result of an initiative by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal of

The peace process

In a meeting with recently elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu, and perhaps also in public remarks, Benedict is likely to
call for a revival of the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

While the pope’s words and gestures can “create a climactic atmosphere
conducive to peace,” according to Ambassador Lewy, the Vatican is not
in a position to play any mediating role, he says, since its concern
for Catholic minorities in Muslim lands makes it vulnerable to pressure
from Arab states.

Israel has long perceived a pro-Palestinian bias among many Vatican
diplomats, and that perception grew stronger in January, when the Holy
See’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Cardinal Renato Martino,
compared the Gaza Strip in the wake of Israel’s invasion to a “big
concentration camp.”

Arab Christians

The Vatican has few more urgent concerns than the plight of Catholics and other Christians in the Middle East.

The Christian population of Israel and Palestine, which six decades ago
was as high as 20 percent of the total, is today only 2 percent,
largely on account of economically driven emigration.

“The Holy Father’s visit will certainly encourage these people, who
feel like a beleaguered minority, because they lack opportunities for
employment and higher education,” said American Cardinal John Foley,
who heads a chivalric order that assists Catholics in the Holy Land,
and who will be accompanying Benedict on his trip.

At least as dire is the situation of Iraqi Catholics, tens of thousands
of whom have fled their war-torn country since the U.S.-led invasion in
2003, many of them moving to Jordan.

Jordan’s Ambassador to the Vatican, Dina Kawar, said that her country
is expecting Catholics from neighboring Iraq, Lebanon and Syria to
attend the pope’s Mass in an Amman stadium on May 10. Benedict’s homily
on that occasion is likely to address the needs of his followers
throughout the region.

Vatican-Israel relations

When Pope Paul VI visited Jerusalem in 1964, he did not mention the
word “Israel,” and though he met Israeli President Zalman Shazar, he
refused to address him by his official title. The Holy See finally
recognized Israel in 1993, and the two sovereign states established
diplomatic relations the next year.

A decade and a half later, however, the two parties have still not
settled many complicated questions about the church’s tax and legal
status in Israel, along with its claims to a number of sacred sites
such as the Holy Cenacle, considered the site of the Last Supper.

An accelerated schedule of talks in the run-up to the papal trip had
raised hopes that an agreement might be reached in time for Benedict’s
arrival, but those hopes fell for good after a late-April meeting, when
negotiators said they had nothing more to report beyond “meaningful

By Francis X. Rocca

2009 Religion News Service

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