Worshippers are reflected on a board marking the upcoming MidEast trip of Pope Benedict XVI, outside the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus
Israel will see little benefit from Pope Benedict XVI’s visit next week, say senior Israeli officials.
The Pope will land in Tel Aviv on Monday for a five-day “pilgrimage” to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The much heralded visit has become a political, financial and security nightmare for many of those involved in organising it.
Pope Benedict will arrive as a guest of Israel’s President Shimon Peres, and the Foreign Ministry was intensively involved in planning the visit, but a senior official at the ministry said last week that “with all the political manoeuvring that the Pope will have to do between the Israelis and the Palestinians and the Christians and Muslims during this visit, he will probably say nothing definite at all that will legitimise the Jewish state”.
Israeli diplomats have yet to see any of the speeches to be made by the Pope but their understanding is that “he will say nothing affirming Israel’s rights, so as not to anger the Muslim leadership”.
Security sources have also expressed worries over some of the details of the passage of the Pope’s entourage between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Eighteen thousand Christian Palestinians have received special permits to travel into Israel and there are fears that terror organisations may take advantage of the large volume of traffic between the two sides to smuggle explosives and plan attacks in Israel.
The visit will cost Israel £6.9m, with most of the money going on security arrangements. Officials at the Tourism Ministry have said in recent weeks that unlike the previous papal visit by Pope John Paul II in 2000, which was followed by a wave of Catholic tourism, this time there will be no “papal dividend”, due to the global recession.
An internal political squabble has also cast a pall over the visit. President Peres asked Interior Minister Eli Yishai to sign an order acceding sovereignty over six historic sites, including the garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem, to the Vatican. Mr Yishai has so far refused to respond to the request.
Meanwhile, the Technion Institute in Haifa has prepared a gift for the Pope: a tiny speck of silicone, on which they superimposed the entire Tanakh. It is believed to be the smallest Bible in the world.