Pope to Confront Myriad Challenges in Holy Land Trip

VATICAN 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 Jordan.

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 progress.”

By Francis X. Rocca

2009 Religion News Service

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