Pope's Holy Land balancing act

The pontiff begins a 'personal pilgrimage' today. But every step carries political, as well as religious, overtones.

Pope John Paul II begins a Holy Land pilgrimage today with an unprecedented message of reconciliation for the three monotheistic faiths of Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

But while the Vatican insists that this journey is a personal pilgrimage to the roots of Christianity in Jordan, Israel, and Palestinian-controlled territory, the ferment of politics and religion here are thoroughly intermixed. Just a week after the pope made a first-ever, sweeping apology in Rome for the intolerance of his church over 2,000 years, his message in the Mideast points toward a future of reconciliation and peace.

"This is a historic and spiritual event," says Yair Zakovitch, a professor of Bible studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "It's time for reconciliation between Jews and Christians after a painful history. I'm sure this will be a turning point that will be remembered through the next millennium."

Jews expect a specific apology for the Roman Catholic Church's virtual silence during the World War II genocide by Nazi Germany that left 6 million European Jews dead - as well as for centuries of anti-Jewish church doctrine. Extremist Jews have threatened to disrupt the visit, accusing the church of "massacring" Jews during the Holocaust and the Inquisition. Israeli police suspect ultranationalists were responsible for vandalizing the pope's helicopter landing site in Jerusalem early Sunday - tearing up Vatican flags and spray-painting Nazi swastikas and other graffiti.

Muslims look back too, and remember that the brutalities of the Crusades against them were initiated by a pope. Besides longstanding divisions among Christian sects, Christian minorities regionwide are getting smaller and feel increasingly beleaguered. They may take heart that the pope has come to deliver his message of interreligious harmony in person.

"Christianity is the only faith [of the three] with such a dominating figure, so any message of reconciliation is powerful," says Faruk Jarrar, the coordinator of Muslim-Christian dialogue for the Al al-Beit Foundation in Jordan. "It is not to turn back history, but will give relief to people living in this age."

The pilgrim's path in the Middle East has been well-worn for centuries. The pontiff's trail takes him from the heights of Mt. Nebo - the spectacular Jordan hilltop overlooking the Dead Sea where Moses is believed to have died - to the smoky candle-lit sanctum of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, where tradition holds that Jesus rose from the dead.

John Paul II set the tone during a visit to Egypt in late February: "To do harm, to promote violence and conflict in the name of religion is a terrible contradiction and a great offense against God."

The Roman Catholic Church has declared the year 2000 a jubilee, or "holy year," of penance and prayer for its 1 billion followers that requires "purification of memory" for the church to progress. That effort will be felt keenly in Israel. Contempt for Jews was part of church teaching until the 1960s. The Vatican apologized for that and Nazi-era misdeeds in a major document in 1998. That apology was strengthened last week, when the pope said he was "deeply saddened" by Catholics who "in the course of history" caused Jews to suffer.

But the apology did not specifically mention the Holocaust, and so sparked some angry reaction in Israel. Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau said he was "deeply frustrated" by the omission, and expressed hope that such a reckoning would be made when the pope visits the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial later this week.

The fact that the pope is even visiting Israel, however, is welcomed by many Israelis, says Rabbi David Rosen, head of the Israel office of the Anti-Defamation League, who led the negotiations with the Vatican before it established ties with Israel in 1994. "Nobody has done what Pope John Paul II has done to make Catholic-Jewish reconciliation," Mr. Rosen says.

Solving this issue will be toughest in the Holy Land, Rosen adds. "Jews live in a healing environment in the West, and they don't here. There is constant hostility, and Jews feel more exposed and don't heal so quickly."

Some recall how the pope had good relations with Jews in his native Poland, has spoken strongly before against the Holocaust, and visited the Auschwitz concentration camp in the first year of his papacy. But the Mideast requires an especially delicate political balance. The Vatican recently signed an agreement with Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority that virtually recognizes the Palestinian right to statehood. "Unilateral actions" on the status of Jerusalem - a reference to Israel's claim to all of the city as its undivided capital - were "morally and legally unacceptable." The accord sparked an official complaint from Israel.

But even as the pope visits East Jerusalem's Western Wall, the most sacred site in Judaism, he will also tour the Al-Aqsa mosque, the third-most holy site in Islam. In addition to the Holocaust memorial, he will visit a Palestinian refugee camp near Bethlehem.

The timing of a visit of reconciliation is good, religious leaders say. "Ten years ago, this message would not be so powerful, because even the mention of the word 'reconcile' with the Jews was not possible," says Mr. Jarrar. "Now things are very different, with the peace process under way. Here there are seeds of reconciliation."

Jordan has prepared for the visit by stringing up banners that proclaim: "Jordan Loves the Pope." Muslims welcome the pope's message of peace with both Christians and Jews, Jarrar says, because Jesus and Moses are both recognized - along with Muhammad - as prophets in Islam. The depth of the Arab-Israeli conflict, he says, is not religious: "Our problem these past 100 years is Zionism, what we call 'political Judaism.' "

The pope's pilgrimage will resonate with all three faiths, says Michel Sabah, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. "He is a man with a spiritual message, which is addressed to every human being, and a message that this region needs: of peace based on justice," says the patriarch.

"There are many important people in the world who should join the same effort ... in order to reach reconciliation," he says. "Alone, [the pope] cannot do that. He needs all the goodwill of the world."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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