Pope's agenda in Israel: honoring Holocaust victims, urging two-state solution

As he landed in Tel Aviv, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of need for a 'just resolution' for Israelis and Palestinians

GPO/Amos Ben Gershom/HO/AP
In this photo released by the Israeli Government Press Office, Pope Benedict XVI walks with Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat as they greet Catholic school children during a welcoming ceremony at the Mount Scopus helipad in Jerusalem, Monday. Pope Benedict XVI called for the establishment of an independent Palestinian homeland immediately after he arrived in Israel Monday.

Pope Benedict XVI arrived here on Monday for a historic five-day tour of the Holy Land, and from the moment he touched ground, he urged Christians, Muslims, and Jews to work toward peace based on a two-state formula to solve the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

While still on the tarmac of Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv, the pope also spoke of the horrors of the Holocaust – referring to it with the Hebrew term shoah – and said that he would "pray that humanity will never again witness a crime of such magnitude." He declared ongoing anti-Semitism in the world "totally unacceptable."

These two messages – telling Jews that he intends to honor the 6 million killed in the Holocaust, and reassuring Arabs that he supports the creation of a Palestinian state – are key themes that the pope is expected to broadcast during his visit here. In addition to encouraging the small native Christian population, which has been dwindling in numbers over decades of Middle East violence, the pope began his five-day visit by setting a tone of healing rifts with Jews and Muslims.

Pope Benedict upset many Muslims around the world in 2006, when he quoted a medieval text depicting the prophet Muhammad as violent. Jews, too, look warily at several of his positions. He has praised Pius XII, the World War II-era pope whom Jews say did little to save Jews or criticize the Nazis during the Holocaust. Also in dispute is his decision to reinstate the Tridentine Mass, which includes a prayer for the conversion of Jews to Roman Catholicism, and his lifting of an excommunication order for a bishop who denies the Holocaust occurred.

But some say the pope's trip itself is a step in the right direction. Many of the controversial matters are more nuanced issues that were taken out of context, says Rabbi David Rosen, the Chairman of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC).

"It was a communications fiasco. He wants the Jewish community to understand that [these decisions] were in no way meant to condone anti-Semitism or advance Holocaust denial," says Rabbi Rosen, an expert in Catholic-Jewish relations.

"Most people think we've been through a rough patch in Christian-Jewish relations," Rosen adds. "This visit will serve as a message to people that if there was a problem, it's obviously been solved." He added: "There's never been as much dialogue between the Vatican and the Jews as there is today."

Given the sensitivities surrounding Benedict's decisions and the stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, experts say that the pope will craft his message carefully and will choose his words in kind.

"Every speech will try to maneuver between all parties," says Amnon Ramon, a professor at Hebrew University's Swiss Center for Conflict Research, Management, & Resolution. "I think Israelis will be listening to what he says at Yad Vashem [Israel's Holocaust Memorial Museum], and when in Bethlehem he will say something about the Palestinian tragedy. It's quite a complicated mission."

Professor Ramon notes the difference between this visit and that of Pope John Paul II, who came here in March 2000, half a year before the second intifada, or uprising, broke out. There was far more optimism in the air, bolstered by a worldwide appreciation for the ailing pope, factors that paved the way for a much smoother visit.

By comparison, Ramon says, some people – Muslims and Jews alike – may hold fast to some of the negative impressions surrounding Pope Benedict.

"If you make a few mistakes, even if you try to correct them, it's hard to take back what you said, and so this is a difficult mission for the pope," he says. "Even though the Vatican tried to heal the wounds, still these are images that a lot of people remember."

The pope is also faced with the challenge of advancing Middle East peace without being overtly political.

Upon landing in Israel, the pope said that the Palestinians should have a "homeland" with their own borders, though he refrained from using the word "state." Israel's new prime minister, Benjamin Netanayhu, has not endorsed the two-state solution accepted in Washington, making the issue of language a touchy subject.

"I plead with all those responsible to explore every possible avenue in the search for a just resolution of the outstanding difficulties, so that both peoples may live in peace in a homeland of their own, within secure and internationally recognized borders," the pope stated.

From Israel's perspective, the pope's visit is expected to stimulate pilgrimage to the Holy Land and emphasize freedom of access to the holy sites. Mayor Nir Barkat said in a welcome speech that "Jerusalem is an open place of all religions and we intend to deepen our links with all the world's great religions."

But Palestinians are keen to present an alternative image of reality, based on the fact that many West Bank Muslims find it impossible to obtain permits from Israel to reach Jerusalem and pray in the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam.

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