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Holy Land poses challenge to pope

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

A daunting challenge awaits Pope John Paul II in the Holy Land, the next stop on his “Great Jubilee” pilgrimage through the Middle East: satisfying both Palestinians and Israelis that the Catholic church is on their side.

Despite pronouncements by the Vatican that the visit to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian areas March 20-24 is at heart a spiritual journey, hints of political competition are accompanying the warm words of anticipation being voiced by Palestinian and Israeli officials.

Palestinian leaders say they view the pope’s trip as a chance to bolster their case for statehood and to highlight continued Israeli occupation practices. Israeli leaders, meanwhile, hope the visit will crown 35 years of Jewish-Vatican rapprochement, strengthen Israeli-Vatican ties and boost tourism.

Speaking from Bethlehem, which will be one of the pope’s first stops, Salah Tamari, chairman of the Land and Settlements Committee of the Palestinian Legislative Council, praised a decision by John Paul II to include the Dehaishe refugee camp on his itinerary.

The camp is home to refugees who during Israel’s emergence in 1948 fled or were evicted and their descendants, totaling 8,500 people. The camp was a hotspot during the intifada, or Palestinian uprising. Most Palestinians view the pope’s visit there as a gesture of solidarity.

“The visit will highlight the fact that no matter what the politics are, no matter how powerful the elements that suppress people are, human principles remain the same and human principles have their advocate,” Tamari said.

“Human beings, although they may admire the powerful, have a tendency to support the weak,” Tamari added. “If the Vatican did not really sympathize with the Palestinians, something would be wrong.”

Local church officials also see a political message in the trip to the refugee camp. “The pope is coming here to support peace and justice. Peace and justice mean that everyone has freedom to not be under occupation and to have their own institutions,” said Wadie Abu Nasser, an aide to Latin Patriarch Michel Sabah and the press director for the Jubilee pilgrimage.

Abu Nasser said the pope’s visit would also signal support to local Christians, who make up about 3 percent of the population in the Palestinian areas and Israel, a figure that has dropped steadily over the last two decades as a result of immigration.

“He will be giving spiritual support and offering a message that they should stay in their homeland and continue to be the messengers of Christ,” Abu Nasser said.

The pope will also be “bringing a message of love and brotherhood to Jews and Moslems,” Abu Nasser said.

John Paul II’s itinerary was crafted with Jewish sensibilities in mind, with visits to the Yad Vashem Memorial to victims of the Nazi Holocaust and to the Western Wall, the last remnant of the Temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.

The pope will meet with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, visit the third holiest site in Islam, Aksa Mosque, and hold Mass in Jerusalem, on the Mount of Beatitudes in the Galilee and at the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, according to Abu Nasser.

Rabbi David Rosen, head of the Anti-Defamation League’s Israel office and a negotiator for Israel in its 1993 establishment of relations with the Vatican, termed John Paul II “a genuine friend of Israel and a great lover of the Jewish people.”

“The visit of the pope will be the powerful demonstration and symbol of the transformation of the Catholic church’s attitude toward the Jewish people,” Rosen added.

In Rosen’s view, the church has made a “positive revolution,” moving from an attitude of contempt toward Jews to one of sympathy and friendship during the period from 1965 to the present. This began, he said, with the promulgation of Nostra Aetate at Vatican II, which rejected the idea of Jewish collective or continuous responsibility for the death of Jesus, affirmed God’s covenant with the Jewish people as eternal and unbroken, condemned anti-Semitism and emphasized the Jewish roots of Christianity.

John Paul is viewed as having made a major contribution to furthering Catholic-Jewish ties with repeated statements condemning anti-Semitism. In 1984, he issued a letter recognizing the significance of the State of Israel for the Jewish people.

Nevertheless, the Catholic-Jewish relationship also faces several rough spots, not least the debate over possible sainthood for Pope Pius XII. This pope, who presided over the church during World War II, has been criticized for not being more outspoken about persecution of Jews.

After the Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles in 1993, the Vatican established full bilateral relations with Israel. Rosen believes there have been difficulties during John Paul II’s tenure, including the canonization of Edith Stein, a nun who converted from Judaism and perished in the Holocaust, and the establishment of the Carmelite Convent at Auschwitz. But these are greatly outweighed by the transformation in the church’s overall attitude toward Jews, he said.

Added Daniel Levy, an adviser to Haim Ramon, the Israeli minister responsible for the pope’s visit: “From the perspective of the state of Israel and from a Jewish perspective, the pope’s scorecard is extremely positive.”

Israel has financial interests at stake in the pope’s visit, Levy indicated. “It should give a tremendous boost to tourism and it is important that it go smoothly,” he said.

Israel, like any country faced with a massive media event, wants to make a good impression on the rest of the world, Levy added.

An Israeli official who declined to be identified said that from now to the pope’s departure there would be an informal suspension of demolitions of Palestinian homes built without permits in Jerusalem. House demolitions, a source of great resentment among Palestinians, run the risk of causing unrest and diverting the attention of security forces from the pope’s visit, the official said.

Palestinians often argue that they are forced to build illegally because the areas in which they own land are not included in local building plans, while Israeli officials counter that zoning laws must be enforced.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Foreign Ministry, which sharply criticized the preamble of a PLO-Vatican agreement on Feb. 15, also seemed to be putting out the welcome mat for the pontiff. Without specifically mentioning Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967, the preamble stated that “unilateral decisions and actions altering the specific character and status of Jerusalem are morally and legally unacceptable.”

“We hope the pope’s visit here will serve as a message of the spirit of peace and reconciliation in this troubled area,” said Ariel Kenet, director of the Foreign Ministry’s Department of Religions.

About John Paul II’s planned visit to Dehaishe refugee camp, Kenet said: “The visit itself is not problematic. We trust the pope. He knows what to say and what not to say. I’m sure he will not [make pro-Palestinian declarations]. Otherwise, what is the use of his mission?”

National Catholic Reporter, March 17, 2000