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Israel rolls out red carpet, tight security for pope

Jerusalem — Israel rolls out the red carpet for Pope Benedict XVI on Monday as he begins the latest leg of his Holy Land pilgrimage appealing for religious reconciliation and Middle East peace.

Security-obsessed Israel is laying on stringent measures for the trip under "Operation White Robe," with tens of thousands of law enforcement officers deployed, entire sections of Jerusalem to be shut down and Israeli air space to be closed for the pope’s arrival.

But with Israel-Vatican relations strained, the German-born Benedict is not expected to receive the warmth that greeted his predecessor John Paul II on a landmark Holy Land visit nine years ago.

Israel is angered over Benedict’s backing the beatification of controversial Nazi-era pope Pius XII and lifting the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying British bishop.

The pontiff is flying in from Jordan for a five-day pilgrimage in Israel and the Palestinian territories that will see him follow in the footsteps of Jesus and visit Jewish and Muslim holy sites.

He will meet senior Israeli and Palestinian leaders, top Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious officials, and Palestinian refugees living in the shadow of Israel’s controversial separation barrier near the spot where Jesus is believed to have been born in Bethlehem.

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-faith dialogue in a conflict-ridden region sacred to the world’s three main monotheistic religions.

The Palestinians hope to use his visit to highlight their plight, with the West Bank still under Israeli occupation and Gaza in ruins from Israel’s devastating war on the territory at the start of the year.

Speaking on Saturday on the slopes of the windswept Mount Nebo, where biblical tradition says God showed Moses the Promised Land, Benedict called for reconciliation between Christians and Jews, calling the bond between the Church and the Jewish people "inseparable."

Among his first stops in Israel will be the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, where he will lay a wreath in memory of the six million Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II.

But he will pointedly not visit the area of the memorial where a caption under a photo of Pius XII says the wartime pope failed to protest against the Holocaust — a stance that has angered the Vatican which disputes the claim.

Israel has pumped about 10 million dollars (7.5 million euros) into preparations for the visit, 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.

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

There is also concern over the Pius beatification and Benedict’s membership of the Hitler Youth, although he has said he was enrolled against his will after membership became compulsory in 1941.

"People are suspicious of his motives. They think he’s hardline … conservative," said Yaacov Katz, a professor at Bar-Ilan University.

But Rabbi David Rosen, chairman of the International Jewish Committee on Inter-religious Consultations, said such unease is unjustified.

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

Over the past few months, hectic preparations have gone on ahead of the visit.

In Nazareth, dozens of earthmovers have been tearing up a flank of Mount Precipice where the pope will give a mass and at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Franciscan monks closed down their chapel to paint the peeling ceiling.

In the Aida refugee camp at the gates of Bethlehem, residents hope to use the visit to attract the world’s attention to Israel’s controversial eight-metre (25-foot) high concrete wall towering above much of the city.

"Welcome Pope in Aida Camp," was the slogan daubed in English on the imposing structure.

The pope is also expected to meet the parents of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli serviceman who has been held by Gaza militants since June 2006.

Hours before the pope’s arrival, Israeli police closed down a Palestinian press centre in annexed east Jerusalem, where the Palestinians hope to establish the capital of their promised state, but where Israel forbids all official activity by the Palestinian Authority.

Yana Dlugy/AFP/Expatica