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As Pope Benedict prepares for his forthcoming visit to Israel and the Middle East his intention is clear — he travels as a pilgrim of peace to the Holy Land. For Catholics, the holy places that the Pope will visit — Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth — rank alongside Rome in their importance for pilgrims.
But the visit also has profound implications for the Roman Catholic Church, for this papacy, and for its relations with the Jewish people and Judaism.
Benedict will go there as a symbol of Christianity and as the leader of the biggest Christian denomination — but also as a head of state. And that means his every word has implications not only for faith but for diplomacy and politics.
His priority is to be a man of peace in a region marked by division, fear and mistrust. But he may meet distrust, given some of his decisions: to allow a prayer, albeit revised, that Jews still abhor, to be said on Good Fridays by Catholics attending the Tridentine Rite version of services; and to allow four Lefebvrist bishops, including a Holocaust denier, back into the Catholic Church. His hope will be for reconciliation, not confrontation.
There could yet be conflict over other issues, however. When the Holy See-Israel bilateral commission, which was set up to discuss controversial issues such as the Holy See’s standing in Israel on property and taxation, failed to come to any agreements, President Shimon Peres entered the fray. He is pressing the government to hand over control of six key Christian sites to the Holy See: the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth; the Coenaculum on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, where Jesus is said to have held The Last Supper; Gethsemane, which sits at the foot of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem; Mount Tabor; and the Church of the Multiplication, on the Sea of Galilee.
Given that Israel’s foreign minister and tourism minister have rejected the idea, such a magnanimous gesture is unlikely to bear fruit.
And there will be plenty of other tricky issues for the Pope during his stay in the Middle East.
For he will not only be visiting Jewish Israelis. He will also be concerned with the situation in the Middle East as it affects Palestinian Christians and Muslims, and his visit will take him to Bethlehem, Ramallah and a meeting with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. With growing numbers of Catholics gravely concerned about the situation of Palestinians, his every word will be noted. But any gesture of solidarity to Palestinians will be also monitored in case it offers succour to Hamas.
Perhaps the most highly charged moment of all will come when the German Pope, who lived through the Nazi era, visits Yad Vashem. Pope Benedict has spoken of the revulsion he feels for Nazism. But for him, the suffering was not just the Jews’ but the German people’s as well. In 2004, when visiting The La Cambe cemetery in Normandy, where 21,000 German war dead lie, he said: “As Germans, we cannot help but be painfully moved to realize that their idealism and their obedience to the state were misused by an unjust government.” According to a report in the New Yorker magazine, he said that it was not within his spiritual commission to judge the fallen of La Cambe, “into whose conscience only God can see”.
This visit is fraught with religious, political and diplomatic danger. But it could still be a moment of extraordinary peace and reconciliation.
Catherine Pepinster is editor of the Tablet