May 7 (Bloomberg) — Pope Benedict XVI arrives in the
Middle East tomorrow on a trip Israel calls a “Bridge for
Peace.” The pontiff may find it more like a tightrope after his
actions strained ties with both Jews and Muslims.
The Vatican cancelled his planned meeting with an Israeli
Arab mayor after Israeli Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov
accused the mayor of promoting terrorism. In Jordan, the Islamic
Action Front, a bloc affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood,
said the pope was “not welcome” because he hasn’t apologized
for linking Islam and the Prophet Mohammed to violence.
Benedict’s visit to the Holy Land is seen by religious
scholars and officials in Jordan and Israel as a chance to
fortify shaky ties. At the same time, it poses the risk of
further mishaps that could inflame religious sentiments in an
already conflict-ridden region.
“The question is how careful he will be,” said Joshua
Schwartz, who teaches ancient Christianity at Bar Ilan
University outside Tel Aviv. “That depends to a great extent on
how carefully his advisers have prepared and if the pope is
willing to sidestep some difficult issues.”
In the four years since he was chosen pope, Benedict has
made the September 2006 comments about Islam and violence,
promised to reinstate a bishop who denies the Holocaust took
place and allowed priests to carry out a Latin liturgy that
includes prayers calling for the conversion of Jews.
On a trip to Cameroon and Angola in March, the 82-year-old
pontiff said AIDS “cannot be overcome through the distribution
of condoms, which even aggravate the problems,” drawing
criticism from the United Nations AIDS agency and government
officials in France and Germany.
Benedict will step onto one of the most hotly disputed
pieces of territory in the world. Israel and the Palestinians
both want sovereignty over east Jerusalem, home to sites
significant to all three monotheistic faiths. Palestinians seek
a future state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while some
Israelis believe the Jewish people have a Biblical claim to the
The Catholic Church has its own territorial claims on the
Holy Land. Disagreement over the status of its many properties
there — including such Christian holy sites as Jerusalem’s
Church of Gethsemane and the Church of Beatitudes in the Galilee
– has held up the signing of an economic agreement between the
Israeli government and the Holy See.
During his journey, from May 8 through May 15, Benedict
will meet Jordan’s King Abdullah and tour the site renowned as
the scene of Jesus’ baptism on the Jordan River. He will
celebrate masses in Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem, believed
to be Jesus’ birthplace; and meet with Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres.
Israel’s foreign ministry said in February that it viewed
“with regret and concern” Benedict’s decision to lift an
excommunication order and re-admit U.K.-born Richard Williamson
into the church. The pope later admitted making “mistakes” by
not consulting information about Williamson available on the
Internet and said the clergyman would be reinstated only if he
“unequivocally” recanted his denial of the Holocaust.
The rift with the Muslim world came earlier. In a lecture
at Germany’s University of Regensburg in 2006, the pontiff cited
a 14th-century text saying that the Prophet Mohammed brought
things that were “evil and inhuman, such as his command to
spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
The remarks were “shocking,” but also “instrumental in
launching a renewed and vigorous process of interaction and
dialogue between Christians and the Muslim world,” said Baker
al-Hiyari, deputy director of the Amman, Jordan-based Royal
Institute for Inter-Faith Studies.
The pope has made gestures to both Jews and Muslims,
including a 2006 visit to the Auschwitz death camp in Poland and
a 2005 tour of the Cologne synagogue destroyed in Kristallnacht,
the coordinated 1938 attack on Jews in Germany. In 2006, he
became the first pope in history to turn toward the holy city of
Mecca, while praying alongside Mufti Mustafa Cagrici in
Still, there are likely to be “too many pitfalls to avoid
entirely,” said Thomas Landy, director of the Center for
Religion at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester,
Massachusetts. “He’ll largely rely on balance and caution to
avoid the pitfalls, and I’d expect the approach to be highly
Christians in the region are primarily Palestinian. They
account for about 1.5 percent of the population in the
Palestinian territories, 3 percent of the population in Jordan
and about 2 percent in Israel.
“This visit will stress again and again that despite the
misunderstandings, the relations with both the Muslims and
Jewish world are important for the church and for the pope
personally,” said Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Vatican
custodian of the holy sites.
The trip “highlights Jordan’s role as a haven for
tolerance, coexistence and dialogue,” said Nabil Sharif,
Jordan’s Minister of State for Media Affairs and Communications.
Jewish leaders also see the pope’s time in Israel as a
chance to improve ties. The title of the government’s Web site
for the visit is “A Bridge for Peace.”
“We have to understand the infrastructure of these
relations and where we are going,” said Oded Ben Hur, former
Israeli ambassador to the Vatican, who is advising the foreign
ministry on the pope’s trip. “One episode or another should not