Pope and Circumstance

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 hitch.

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 the Holocaust.

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.