The official Israeli government website for Pope Benedict XVI’s upcoming trip to Israel and the West Bank promoted the May 11to 15 visit as a “bridge for peace.”
Others, however, described it as a potential minefield where various factions may try to exploit the Pope’s presence for political gain.
“Both Jewish and Muslim ideologues are determined to stop the Pope crossing that bridge,” wrote Catholic religion journalist Damian Thompson in his blog for the U.K. Telegraph, “either by smearing him as an anti-Semite or by making his visit to a Palestinian refugee camp look like a politically motivated reproach to Israel.”
The German-born pontiff left for the Middle East on May 8 and spent three days in Jordan before flying to Israel.
The trip is the first by a Pope to Israel since the 2000 pilgrimage by Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II. John Paul was a historic trailblazer who made promoting Vatican-Jewish relations a central policy goal.
Inevitably, Benedict’s words and actions are sure to be compared – and contrasted – with John Paul’s.
“It’s unfair, but John Paul’s warmth will be compared to the theological coldness of Benedict,” Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri said. “The fact that he was in the Hitler Youth, though involuntarily, will make everyone look at every move and turn of phrase.”
Several issues have strained Vatican-Jewish ties in recent months. There is ongoing controversy over wartime Pope Pius XII’s role in the Holocaust, and Jewish groups erupted in January when Benedict lifted a 20-year-old excommunication order against a traditional bishop who turned out to be a Holocaust denier.
In Rome, Lisa Palmieri-Billig, the American Jewish Committee’s liaison with the Vatican, told JTA that both sides were striving to minimize lingering problems ahead of the papal trip.
“All the problems that might have loomed on the horizon before the pontiff announced his trip are being muted within the perspective of the importance of the visit for bilateral relations,” she said. “Both the Israelis and world Jewry are aware of this and want to nourish good relations.”
On April 12, Benedict, 82, said he would “emphatically” bring a message of “justice and truth, mercy, forgiveness and love” on his trip.
“Reconciliation – difficult but indispensable – is a precondition for a future of overall security and peaceful coexistence, and it can only be achieved through renewed, persevering and sincere efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said.
The Pope’s itinerary includes prayer, politics and pastoral teaching to local Christians in an attempt to improve interfaith relations with both Muslims and Jews.
He stopped in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth, where there were open-air masses and meetings with Muslim and Jewish religious leaders.
The Pope visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and the al-Aida Palestinian refugee camp near Bethlehem. He met with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Official Vatican policy is to maintain an equilibrium of sorts in its relations with Israel and the Arab world.
“Its diplomacy is different from that of other states because it is always aware of the Christian populations,” Palmieri-Billig said.
In Jerusalem, Oded Ben-Hur, a former Israeli ambassador to the Vatican, said the Pope’s visit is proof that “relations between Israel and the Holy See are strong and solid.” Ben-Hur said Benedict “has never missed an opportunity to reiterate his commitment to dialogue and to relations with Israel.”
The two states formalized full diplomatic relations in 1994. But years of fitful negotiations have failed to resolve several lingering issues, including fiscal status and tax issues regarding Church property in Israel and visa restrictions on Arab Christian priests.
Meanwhile, Arab and Muslim sentiment ahead of the visit appeared to be mixed. One possible problem could be the Pope’s last day in the region, May 15, which coincides with the day Palestinians commemorate as the Nakba – the “catastrophe” of Israel’s birth in May 1948.
“The Pope’s Palestinian hosts will certainly ‘instrumentalize’ this,” Avineri said.
The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, said Benedict’s visit to the al-Aida refugee camp on that day is a symbol of the Palestinians’ “right of return” to the Holy Land, according to a report on Israel’s Ynet news.
Pamphlets in some Arab towns called for protests against the Pope because of remarks he made in 2006 that were construed as insulting Islam. At the time, the remarks sparked protests in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as elsewhere in the Arab world.
In Nazareth, near the Church of the Annunciation, which the Pope is to visit, radical Muslims have hung a banner apparently aimed at Benedict that quotes a passage from the Qur’an: “Those who harm God and His Messenger – God has cursed them in this world and in the hereafter, and has prepared for them a humiliating punishment.”
“Everyone is crossing their fingers” that things go well, Avineri said.