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.
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.
As he arrived in Jordan Friday on his first trip to an Arab country, the pope was met at the airport by King Abdullah, Queen Rania, and Muslim and Christian leaders. A band played the Vatican and Jordanian national anthems, and the pope and the king then inspected an honor guard.
During his stay, Benedict will visit the largest mosque in Amman and speak with Muslim leaders, some of whom are still angry over the 2006 speech. Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood, an opposition group in parliament, has called for a papal apology.
But it was Jordan's Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute, led by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, the king's religion adviser, that spearheaded the 2007 letter to all Christian churches from 138 global Muslim leaders. Aimed at heading off future conflict, "A Common Word Between You and Us" sparked high-level dialogues in 2008 based on shared values of "love of God and love of the neighbor."
This week's meeting offers the pope his greatest opportunity to lay out in public his vision for Catholic-Muslim relations. "Benedict XVI believes the real clash of civilizations in the world today runs not between Islam and the West, but between belief and unbelief," says Vatican correspondent John Allen, in the National Catholic Reporter. "His priority is a grand partnership with Muslims in defense of a robust role for religion in public affairs, as well as shared values such as the family and the sanctity of life." But first, concerns between the two faiths must be addressed.
The pope will also travel to Bethany Beyond the Jordan, the site on the east bank of the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized by John. King Abdullah has donated land in the area to several Christian churches, and the pope will bless the cornerstone of a Catholic cathedral under construction.
"The site is a Christian worship center and a national park, where, apart from the churches being built, we'll keep the area where John [the Baptist] lived as pristine as possible in a state of wilderness," says a high palace source. A center at the park will host Christian-Muslim conferences.
Christian communities in the Holy Land descend from the earliest churches. But there has been an exodus from the region since 1948, with the Christian population dropping from 20 percent to less than 2 percent. The pope comes at a time of deep distress.
"The local church has been quietly opposed to the visit, partly because it's so close to Israel's incursion into Gaza," says the Rev. Drew Christiansen, editor of America magazine and a former church official in the Holy Land. (The Catholic pastor in Gaza has questioned why the pope would come at this time, particularly without visiting Gaza.)
The Catholic Church also has been in difficult negotiations for years with the Israeli government, which has cut back on visas for church personnel. The church recognized Israel in 1993 in an agreement that other treaties would follow to resolve tax and property issues. But negotiations have dragged on. Many feel the pope should not have come without resolution of some of these longstanding concerns, Father Christiansen says.