Red carpet but little warmth for pope in Israel

10th May 2009, Comments 0 comments

The pontiff arrives in Israel from Jordan on May 11 for a five-day pilgrimage that will see him follow in the footsteps of Jesus and visit Jewish and Muslim holy sites in Israel and the occupied West Bank.

Jerusalem -- Israel rolls out the red carpet for Pope Benedict XVI next week, but the German pontiff is unlikely to receive the warm greeting enjoyed by his predecessor on a landmark trip nine years ago.

The pontiff arrives in Israel from Jordan on May 11 for a five-day pilgrimage that will see him follow in the footsteps of Jesus and visit Jewish and Muslim holy sites in Israel and the occupied West Bank.

He will meet senior Israeli and Palestinian leaders, top Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious officials, and Palestinian refugees living near the spot where Jesus is believed to have been born in a Bethlehem stable.

His trip is a mainly pastoral visit aimed at encouraging the dwindling Christian population to stay in the Holy Land, as well as promoting peace and inter-religious dialogue in a conflict-ridden region sacred to the world's three main monotheistic religions.

Israel is hoping the tour by the pope and thousands of accompanying pilgrims will further boost the number of Christian visitors that has steadily grown over the past three years to nearly 1.8 million in 2008 -- representing almost two thirds of all tourists to Israel.

"Because of the visit, more and more people will come to Israel and experience the Holy Land," said Rafi Ben Hur, deputy director general of the Israeli tourism ministry, still glowing after a phone call from a Catholic tour operator informed him of 10,000 additional visitors.

"At first we were afraid there weren't going to be enough people to come," he said. "But the phone call I got yesterday is great news."

But the unbridled enthusiasm that greeted Pope John Paul II's historic trip in 2000 -- the first by a pontiff since Israel and the Vatican established diplomatic ties in 1993 -- is missing this time around.

Although some say Jewish-Vatican relations have never been better, Israelis are ambivalent about the German pope who was a member of the Hitler Youth and has stirred controversy by backing beatification of a controversial Nazi-era pontiff and lifting the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying British bishop.

"It's slightly less positive because of the personality of the pope himself," says Yaacov Katz, a professor at Bar-Ilan University. "People are suspicious of his motives. They think he's hardline... conservative."

The Polish-born John Paul II on the other hand was much admired by Jews.

During his nearly 27-year papacy, the Vatican established diplomatic relations with Israel and he was the first pope to visit a synagogue and the Auschwitz concentration camp. During his 2000 Holy Land trip, Jews were among the crowds that jostled to catch a glimpse of him.

Such near-adulation is not expected to greet Benedict, an 81-year-old who has only been in office for four years.

"This visit is very important, but it doesn't compare to an event that had never happened before," said Rabbi David Rosen, chairman of the International Jewish Committee on Inter-religious Consultations, referring to John Paul II's tour.

Benedict unleashed a torrent of criticism in January when he lifted the excommunication of British bishop Richard Williamson and three other ultra-conservative bishops in what he called a "discreet gesture of mercy."

In the wake of the outrage over the Holocaust denying bishop, he said it was "intolerable and altogether unacceptable" to deny the genocide.

In October, Benedict also stirred unease among Jewish groups when he defended the beatification of Pope Pius XII who has been accused of turning a blind eye to the Nazi atrocities during World War II.

He later placed the sainthood dossier on hold, saying the process would have to wait six or seven years until sealed archive material on Pius's wartime years became available.

Coupled with Benedict's German origins and his membership of the Hitler Youth -- he has said he was enrolled against his will after membership became compulsory in 1941 -- these incidents have created concern in the Jewish community.

"There is a lot of dissatisfaction with the fact that he tried to rehabilitate Bishop Williamson," Katz said, adding that the pope's German origins were "held against him as not being sensitive to the feelings of the Jewish religion."

But such unease is unjustified, argue some.

"Catholic Jewish relations are extremely warm right now and probably never been as good as they are," Rosen said.

"The result of the Williamson episode is that the pope and the Vatican have never expressed as strong a commitment to Jewish-Vatican relations, and a repudiation of the Holocaust as they have done over... the last two months."

Christians in the Holy Land are divided on the pope's visit in the wake of Israel's deadly war on Hamas in Gaza in December-January, with many urging the pontiff to stay away in protest at the offensive.

"We want the pope to come, but the timing is problematic because of the Gaza war where many Palestinians were killed," said Bassam Shahtoot, a member of the Nazareth Roman Catholic parish council. "Some people are using this visit politically" to polish Israel's image.


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