It is a brief 15-minute walk down the tree-lined Tiber from St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City to Rome's chief Jewish synagogue. Yet no Roman Catholic Pope has ever made the short trip ``across the Tiber'' to visit the Jewish synagogue. On Sunday afternoon, Pope John Paul II will make that trip.
But it will not be clear what the Pope intended in requesting this visit until he speaks inside the synagogue, which is on the boundary of the former Jewish ghetto, established by the papacy in 1555 and legally abolished in 1870.
Jewish spokesmen continue to express hopes that the Pope will grant official Vatican recognition to the state of Israel. But Vatican officials, publicly and privately, insist that this visit is ``purely religious'' in character and that no such change in Vatican policy is to be expected.
The visit is the latest in a series of efforts by the Vatican to reach out to other world religions -- previous steps were meetings by the Pope with Muslims in Morocco and Hindus in India -- and comes midway between the Christian Easter and the Jewish Passover.
One of the main Vatican objections to recognition of Israel is the status of Jerusalem. Israel claims the city as its capital, but the Vatican believes it must, under some formula, be an ``international'' city, open to Christians, Muslims, and Jews.
The Vatican also feels some commitment must be made to assist the Palestinians' desire for a homeland, Vatican sources say. And, they say, the Vatican is fearful of the consequences for Catholics in Muslim countries and for its ecumenical dialogue with orthodox Christians should it recognize the state of Israel.
Two more issues have troubled Catholic-Jewish relations of late. The first is the wording of some of the Pope's references to Jews and to Israel in October and February homilies. The second concerns the church's intention to establish a convent of Carmelite nuns on the site of the former Auschwitz concentration camp in the Pope's native Poland, similar to one that currently exists at the Dachau camp in West Germany. The chief rabbis of Europe have mailed a letter to the Pope, protesting the planned convent.
The amelioration of Catholic-Jewish relations, which began under the pontificate of Pope John XXIII (1958-1963), culminated in a Vatican II document that rejects the idea that the Jews may be held collectively responsible for the death of Jesus, a concept that had fostered anti-Semitism through many centuries.