Pope Visits Middle East After Comments Anger Muslims and Jews

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.

Condom Criticism

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 West Bank.

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.

Baptizing Jesus

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.

“I will come to you as a pilgrim of peace,” Benedict said yesterday, reading out a message from St. Peter’s Basilica directed to the Jordanian, Israeli, and Palestinian people.

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.”

‘Shocking’ Remarks

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 Istanbul.

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 scripted.”

Christian Minority

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 shatter them.”

To contact the reporters on this story:
Gwen Ackerman in Jerusalem at [email protected];
Massoud A. Derhally in Amman, Jordan at [email protected]