Pope embarks on Mideast fence-mending trip
His pilgrimage this week is also a chance to reassure Jews and Muslims about Vatican views.
Pope Benedict XVI calls his visit to the Holy Land this week a spiritual pilgrimage, a journey to the sites most sacred to the Christian imagination. Yet it also may become a defining moment of his pontificate, presenting opportunities to reach publics in the Muslim and Jewish worlds that continue to express outrage or dismay over papal actions of recent years.Skip to next paragraph
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While his predecessor's 2000 visit to the region came after John Paul II had engaged for decades with other faiths and apologized for the church's historical wrongs against Jews and Muslims, Pope Benedict has been embroiled in controversy for actions many people have considered insensitive, if not provocative.
"It is a pilgrimage, but we can understand pilgrimage as an encounter not only with holy places but with religious communities and political leaders," says a Vatican source familiar with his plans. "It will give the Holy Father the occasion to say again what he believes with regard to religious relations."
As the pope travels from May 8 to 15 to Jordan, the West Bank, and Israel, he also will spend time with local Christian communities, which are themselves under great pressures. Stops include Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Jerusalem, where he'll visit the Dome of the Rock (Islam's third-holiest site), the Western Wall, and the Yad Vashem memorial to the Holocaust.
Since becoming head of the Roman Catholic Church in 2005, the pope has continued the religious outreach initiated by the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, meeting periodically with Jewish leaders and joining last November in a Catholic-Muslim Forum sought by Islamic leaders.
But he also has had serious missteps, such as a 2006 speech that included a historical quote denigrating Islam and the prophet Muhammad, and his reinstatement in January of a once-excommunicated bishop who denies the Holocaust.Jewish leaders who've met with Vatican officials since this latest furor are satisfied with the church's reassurances, but many other Jews remain doubtful.
"There is still an impression that there has been some backtracking on the part of the Vatican," says Rabbi David Rosen, a longtime participant in top-level Catholic-Jewish dialogue. "If all goes well, the trip will be very important in reinforcing the Christian-Jewish relationship and putting to rest the fears" of the public.
Pope Benedict has chalked up one successful trip involving damage control. He calmed many Muslims' fears during a 2006 visit to Turkey, where he respectfully prayed next to the grand mufti in Istanbul's Blue Mosque.