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Pope's lack of specifics on Gaza, Holocaust disappoint Muslims and Jews

He was politely received at Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem Tuesday, but clerics, judges, and Hamas representatives want stronger statements on Israeli policies and Palestinian suffering.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer / May 12, 2009


A chief goal of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the Holy Land – healing tensions with both the Muslim and Jewish worlds – is looking to be a tall order.

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After his Monday visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, some Israelis criticized the pontiff for speaking only in general terms about the Holocaust and not mentioning the role of his native Germany and its Nazi regime. Many Jews around the world were outraged earlier this year when he lifted the excommunication of four right-wing bishops, one of whom has denied the Holocaust, in a bid to reestablish the Roman Catholic church on its traditionalist foundation.

But the pope's mission of mending fences with Muslims is arguably a tougher one, especially after he quoted a medieval Catholic text in 2006 that depicted Islam as inherently violent. He faces not only lingering Muslim resentment over that speech, but also Palestinian bitterness over a lack of progress on gaining statehood as well as the January war in Gaza – a new nadir in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

At a meeting of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders on Monday night, the Palestinian Authority's chief Islamic judge took the microphone unannounced and called upon Muslims and Christians to unite against Israel.

In a visibly angry speech not preapproved by the meticulous event schedulers, Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi accused Israel of murdering women and children in Gaza and making Palestinians refugees, and declared Jerusalem the eternal Palestinian capital. He also accused the Israelis of having "desecrated" the Old City's holy sites and said they had turned the city into "a prison."

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said in an official statement that in "a meeting dedicated to dialogue, this intervention was a direct negation of what a dialogue should be." He added: "We hope that such an incident will not damage the mission of the pope aiming at promoting peace and also interreligious dialogue."

On a Tuesday tour of Jerusalem's holy sites, the pope visited the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock with the top Palestinian cleric, Grand Mufti Muhammad Ahmad Hussein. Their dialogue was held away from the television cameras, amid extremely tight security. Afterward, the grand mufti said his part of the conversation focused on "our sufferings and we asked for justice in this Holy Land." He said he hoped the visit will contribute to peace. Asked how the pope responded, he said: "We felt he was receptive."