Pope to visit Israel

By Anshel Pfeffer, November 27, 2008
Greeting: President Peres with Pope Benedict at his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo in Italy in 2007

Greeting: President Peres with Pope Benedict at his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo in Italy in 2007

Pope Benedict XVI is to visit Israel next year at the invitation of President Shimon Peres, in an attempt to end the recent period of tension over the beatification of former Pope Pius XII.

The visit, which is yet to be formally announced, is set to take place in early May 2009.

President Peres officially invited the Pope a few weeks ago, following a meeting with Archbishop Antonio Franco, the papal nuncio in Jerusalem, who indicated that such an invitation would be positively received.

The foreign ministries of Israel and the Vatican are still fleshing out the details of the visit, which is also scheduled to take in a visit to the Palestinian Authority, probably in Bethlehem.

One of the potential pitfalls in such a visit is the Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, a permanent fixture in every official visit to Israel by a head of state.

A contentious caption in the museum says that Pope Pius XII, who led the Catholic church during the Second World War, failed to act on behalf of the Jews when he received information on the Holocaust, even when the Jews of Rome were being deported. This has been at the centre of recent controversy between Israel and the Vatican.

Last year, Archbishop Franco threatened not to attend a memorial at Yad Vashem in protest over the caption, though he later relented.

In October, the Jesuit priest Peter Gumpel, who is overseeing the canonisation process of Pius XII, said that the current pope would not visit Israel until the Yad Vashem caption was altered, although the Vatican's official spokesman later denied this.

The Pope is under pressure from ultra-conservative elements within the Vatican who venerate Pius XII to speed through the process of recognising him as a saint. At the same time, Jewish organisations have warned that such a step could cause irreparable damage to Jewish-Catholic relations.

Last month, during the 50th anniversary of the death of Pius XII, the Pope praised his record, saying that he had saved thousands of Jews and criticised historians who maintain otherwise.

At the same time, the Pope has yet to authorise Pius XII's beatification, the second stage of canonisation.

A Jewish delegation visiting the Vatican earlier this month received unofficial assurances that the canonisation would not go ahead until all the relevant documents in the Vatican archives from the Holocaust period are published, a process that could take up to seven years.

The compromise that is being worked on is that the Pope will visit only the memorial shrine at Yad Vashem but not tour the museum.

This will be only the third papal visit to Israel. In 1964, Pope Paul VI arrived there, despite the Vatican not recognising the Jewish state at the time. Diplomatic ties were finally formalised in 1994.

And in 2000, Pope John Paul II visited Israel and apologised to the Jewish people for centuries of persecution.

Both the press office of President Peres and the secretary of the papal nuncio in Jerusalem would not confirm or deny the report.

Last updated: 6:53pm, November 28 2008