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 , Staff writer

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.

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.

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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."

The tense parleys and terse words are a testament to the fact that the pope is walking not just on holy ground, but into explosive territory. On Wednesday, he visits Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus and now a West Bank city that is overwhelmingly Muslim. During his visit to the Aida Refugee Camp, which abuts a towering wall that is part of Israel's West Bank security barrier, Palestinians hope to throw a spotlight on their situation. He will also visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

On Thursday, he is also scheduled to hold mass for 40,000 people in Nazareth, followed by another on Friday at the Holy Sepulchre as he wraps up his visit to Israel.

Muslims, too, want specifics

Similar to critical Israelis, some Muslims are looking for more specifics from the pope over past grievances. A senior Muslim cleric in the Palestinian Authority, Sheikh Ishaq Taha, says that while the pope has made efforts to repair the damage done to the Vatican's relations with the Arab world after his 2006 speech, it would be helpful if he made further clarifications. In a lecture, the pope read from a 14th-century text in which the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologos said: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

The Vatican later explained that the pope did not intend to offend, nor did he endorse the words as his own.

"I hope during this visit, the pope will use the opportunity to show his respect for Islam, because there are many who have not heard it," Sheikh Taha says. Palestinians, he adds, will also be listening for a stronger statement on Palestinian suffering at the hands of Israeli policies. They feel they have been hampered from being able to show the pope a variety of sites and to highlight issues such as home demolitions.

"The reason this visit is so important is because of the hope that he will contribute to the peace process," says Taha. "But let's not forget that the occupation has intervened in his visit and has prevented him from arriving at certain locations." Palestinian Authority officials were prevented by Israeli police from having their own press conference on the pope's visit at an East Jerusalem hotel on Monday.

Hard-liners look for criticism of Gaza war

Harder-line Islamists say they expect little out of the pope's visit. Sheikh Mahmoud Musleh, of Hamas, says that Palestinians were disappointed that he didn't criticize Israel more forcefully during the war in Gaza in January.

"He said he considered it an act of self-defense for Israel and did not say that it was a breach of human rights, or an act of excessive force. This adds fuel to the fire of his comments he made about our prophet two years ago," says Sheikh Musleh in an interview in his Ramallah office.

"We find it strange that he is biased toward our enemy," Musleh says. "He has to stay an honest broker and not be biased. We will forgive him once we see he has gone on the right track."

In Gaza, a parliament member from Hamas charged that Pope Benedict was "the most pro-Zionist pontiff in the history of the Catholic Church." Younis al-Astal said that other Muslim leaders' meetings with the pope were pointless because "Islam doesn't accept half solutions."

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