Pope to Take a ‘Prudent’ Approach on Israel Visit

JERUSALEM — Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Israel on Monday, shouldering 2,000 years of often-rocky ties between Catholics and Jews.

Pope Benedict has done much over the course of his career in the Vatican to address that troubled history, but many sore points remain, officials on both sides say. His task is complicated by the fact that during his trip he will be simultaneously working to improve relations with Jews and with Muslims. Any conciliatory gesture to Israel will likely be seen as an affront to Palestinians, and vice versa.

The pope heads to Jerusalem after three days in Jordan, where he expressed his “deep respect” for Islam. It was part of Pope Benedict’s outreach to Muslims following the fallout from a controversial lecture he made in 2006 in which he cited a Byzantine emperor who equated Islam with violence. During a visit to Jordan’s largest mosque, Jordan’s Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal, a cousin of King Abdullah II, thanked the pope “for the regret you expressed after the Regensburg lecture.”

The pope also spoke of the “inseparable bond” between the Catholic church and the Jewish people during a visit Saturday to Mt. Nebo, where Moses is believed to have looked out onto the Promised Land before dying.

During a Mass celebrated Sunday in Amman, he encouraged the region’s dwindling Christian communities to “persevere in faith, hope and love” in the face of the “difficulties and uncertainties which affect all the people of the Middle East.”

The Vatican has emphasized that the visit is a religious pilgrimage, not a foray into politics. “The pope is not coming to discuss issues or quarrel over this or that,” said the Vatican’s nuncio in Jerusalem, Archbishop Antonio Franco. “We have to be very prudent to avoid some problems,” Archbishop Franco said.

The pope’s handlers already have shown they are being careful about sensitivities on both sides. The Vatican protested the decision to have Jerusalem’s Mayor Nir Barkat speak at an evening welcome party for visiting officials — minus the pope — because the Vatican doesn’t recognize Israeli sovereignty over east Jerusalem. But the mayor is scheduled to speak as planned. Pope Benedict’s Mideast trip is meant to soothe relations between the Vatican and Jewish and Muslim communities. But Pope Benedict’s attempt to lift the excommunication of British Bishop Richard Williamson is still fresh in many minds.

Meanwhile, the pope has refused to speak on a stage erected next to the separation barrier that walls off the West Bank from Israel proper, which has upset the Palestinians. Speaking at the site could have been seen as a statement against Israeli policy. The Vatican has said the site wasn’t in their plans.

“Everything he says and does will be subjected to constant scrutiny to see if he’s skewing one way or the other,” said John L. Allen Jr., author of “The Rise of Benedict XVI.” “It’s going to be a high-wire act.”

This is only the third visit by a pope to the Holy Land. Still, the history of those visits demonstrates the progress in Israeli-Vatican ties. Pope Paul VI, during his visit in 1964, stayed only 11 hours, never once called Israel by name, and avoided using the word Jews. He refused to meet Israel’s chief rabbi.

Pope Benedict’s predecessor John Paul II’s 2000 visit was widely praised. But John Paul waited until midway through his visit to meet with Israel’s president. By contrast, Pope Benedict’s first stop is a visit with President Shimon Peres.

“If you look at it from a historical perspective, one has to understand how much has been achieved in terms of reconciliation between Israel and the Vatican, and between Jews and Catholics, in the past 50 years,” said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev. “Obviously, there are still challenges ahead.”

Israel and the Vatican signed a treaty establishing diplomatic ties in 1993, but Israel’s parliament has yet to ratify the agreement. The status of church properties in Jerusalem and valuable tax exemptions remain points of contention.

Another challenge will be the pope’s second stop on Monday, the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. He will skip the museum. Inside, a photo of the World War II pope, Pius XII, who is on track for sainthood, hangs with a caption accusing the pope of failing to speak out against the Holocaust, a view the Vatican disputes.

Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said the pope’s decision to skip the museum was because his schedule is packed.