Pope's visit to Israel, West Bank and Jordan hopes to bolster interfaith ties


Strained Vatican links with Jews and Muslims need to be improved, writes MARK WEISSin Jerusalem

POPE BENEDICT XVI arrives in Jordan this Friday at the start of a Holy Land pilgrimage promoting peace and interfaith relations in a visit which the Vatican hopes will help improve its strained ties with both Israel and the Muslim world.

After spending the weekend in Jordan the pope flies to Israel on Monday for a five-day trip which takes in Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem in the West Bank.

The visit will provide much needed encouragement for the local Christian community, whose numbers have dwindled to an estimated 170,000.

Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Vatican custodian of the holy sites, said the pilgrimage will act as a morale boost for the minority community. “The visit is aimed first and foremost at encouraging Christians in the Holy Land to stay,” he said.

The situation is particularly acute in the West Bank, where emigration of members of the relatively well-educated and prosperous Christian community has left even Bethlehem with a large Muslim majority.

The pope decided not to visit Gaza, where only about 2,500 Christians live among 1.5 million Muslims. The 200 Catholics in the Strip will travel to Bethlehem to participate in next Wednesday’s Mass in Manger Square, to be celebrated by the pontiff .

The visit is also perceived by the Israeli tourist industry as an opportunity to shake off the country’s negative image in the wake of the recent war in Gaza.

More than 15,000 pilgrims are expected to accompany the pope for the trip, with Israeli tourist officials predicting another 200,000 Christian visitors to Israel over the rest of the year.

Some 50,000 worshippers are expected to attend the Thursday morning Mass at Mount Precipice outside Nazareth, the Biblical site where an angry mob wanted to throw Jesus over the cliff.

The number of pilgrims travelling with Pope Benedict is significantly fewer than the 47,000 who came with John Paul II when he visited in 2000.

The optimism generated by the millennial pilgrimage quickly evaporated with the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada uprising a few months later.

The first pope to visit the Holy Land was Paul VIth in 1964, before the Vatican recognised the state of Israel .

Full diplomatic ties were established in 1993, but differences remain over such issues as ownership of church property in the Holy Land and travel permits for Palestinian West Bank clergy.

Next week’s visit comes after two recent events caused friction for Catholic-Jewish relations.

Israeli and Jewish groups criticised moves to beatify Pope Pius XIIth, seen by some as not having done enough to save Jews during the second World War.

Pope Benedict will lay a wreath at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem but will not enter it, avoiding having to pass an exhibit caption stating Pius did not protest against the Nazi holocaust and maintained a largely neutral position.

Relations were further strained by the Vatican’s recent rehabilitation of excommunicated bishop, British-born Richard Williamson, who denied that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. The church later backtracked, saying Benedict was unaware of Mr Williamson’s views when the excommunication was lifted, and the bishop’s apology was rejected by the Vatican.

Oded Ben-Hur, who served as Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican between 2004-08, told The Irish Times that the bilateral relations are now strong enough to withstand disagreements such as the beatification dispute and the Williamson affair.

Mr Ben-Hur predicted that Israel-Vatican relations will be upgraded in the near future, with the papal visit contributing to the process.

“What better than a visit by the head of the church to the Holy Land to fortify bilateral relations?” he asked.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan last week demanded that the pope apologise for remarks he made in September 2006 about the Prophet Muhammad which were considered by some Muslims as insulting. The pontiff said he was “deeply sorry” over the reaction to his speech in which he quoted a medieval text characterising some of Muhammad’s teachings as “evil and inhuman”. Citing the possibility of an attack by radical Islamic groups, the Israel Security Agency (formerly Shin Bet) this week came out against the pontiff travelling in the pope mobile during his visit to Nazareth, saying the vehicle may not withstand a terrorist attack.