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Middle East Digest

April/May 2000

In This Issue

From the Editor

The Arab/Muslim Nazi Connection

Old Man and the Sea
IDF Leaving Lebanon After Assad Sinks Golan Deal

Oslo in a Rut
Schedule Revised, But Same Old Issues Plague Israel-PA Talks

Mixing Faith And Politics
Israel, PA Court Pope During Holy Land Tour

Viewpoint - Les Enfants Terribles

News Briefs

Middle East Hourglass


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MIXING FAITH AND POLITICS

Israel, PA Court Pope During Holy Land Tour

Pursuing a personal dream, Pope John Paul II arrived in Israel in late March for his historic pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This first-ever official papal visit to Israel was welcomed by most - though not all - Israelis as a potent symbol of the significant changes that have taken place in Catholic-Jewish relations during his 22-year pontificate. Although the Vatican billed it as a spiritual journey to trace "the history of salvation," many Israelis hoped John Paul would use it to build on his positive record towards the Jewish people. Meanwhile, the Palestinians were determined to score a few points of their own, forcing the ailing 79-year-old pontiff to navigate a political minefield at a crucial juncture in peace talks over the biblical heartland of Israel and the city of Jerusalem.

The journey began on March 20 in Jordan – the first stop in his six-day tour of the Holy Land. Moving slowly but with a sense of purpose, John Paul deplaned in Amman to a royal welcome, toured the biblical sites of Mount Nebo, the traditional site where Moses looked over into the Promised Land, and the newly-proclaimed site of Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, which has been quickly developed and promoted as the place where Jesus was baptized. He also held a stadium Mass attended by 40,000 – including hundreds of Iraqi Christians living as refugees in eastern Jordan. Some wanted Vatican assistance to lift UN sanctions on their country; others sought asylum in the West.

That evening, the Pope’s short, low flight to Ben-Gurion Airport hit turbulence, providing a foretaste of things to come in Israel. The official visit began well, with a red-carpet welcome on a brisk, rainy evening. After the frail Pontiff kissed a bowl of Israeli soil, Prime Minister Ehud Barak said, "Welcome to the Holy Land." The colorful reception stood in stark contrast to the last papal visit to Israel in 1964, when Pope Paul VI snubbed Israeli leaders in Jerusalem and never publicly uttered the name of the state of Israel. But Pope John Paul II - a former Polish priest who witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust first-hand - has forged an unprecedented papal record of goodwill towards the Jewish people and in 1994 oversaw the Vatican’s recognition of the state of Israel (though not Jerusalem as its capital). Thus he was received warmly by Israeli officials as a genuine friend of the Jews.

The next day was set aside for a visit to the Palestinian-ruled Bethlehem area, where the Pope sounded a decidedly pro-Palestinian note of the sort which the Vatican had assured was not on the agenda. Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat welcomed him with a military parade, the Palestinian anthem and other trappings of statehood. John Paul played along, kissing a bowl of Palestinian earth and adopting rhetoric interpreted by the Palestinians as a powerful endorsement of their hopes for independence. John Paul had already recognized Palestinian national rights back in 1984. In his remarks in Bethlehem, the Pope said: "No one can ignore how much the Palestinian people have had to suffer in recent decades. Your torment is before the eyes of the world. And it has gone on too long... The Holy See has always recognized that the Palestinian people have a natural right to a homeland," the Pope declared.

The Pope then conducted an open-air Mass on Manger Square, outside the Church of the Nativity, attended by five thousand – far less than the 20,000 predicted. As he finished his homily with an "Amen" around noon, the Muslim call to prayer suddenly blared from the loudspeakers of an imposing grand mosque on Manger Square.

Subsequently, the Pope paid a one-hour visit to the nearby Dheisheh refugee camp, where Palestinians greeted him with photographic exhibits of the refugees’ plight. They were hoping he would expressly endorse the right of return, and again the pontiff did not disappoint, speaking of the "sad memory of what you were forced to leave behind." The Vatican had already miffed Israeli leaders by suggesting they were balancing a visit to Yad Vashem with the tour of the refugee camp. The Palestinians were obviously elated with John Paul’s message, although a violent stone-throwing melee erupted between camp youth and PA police just after he left.

If the stop in Bethlehem was designed as the "Palestinian leg" of the Pope’s journey, the next day was designed to showcase the new Vatican-Israel relationship. John Paul first made a call on Israel’s two chief rabbis at the Great Synagogue in western Jerusalem, and then visited President Ezer Weizman at his official residence. Then, continuing through the streets of Jerusalem, the Pope made his way to what many considered the focal point of his visit, Yad Vashem – the nation’s revered memorial to the Jewish martyrs and Gentile rescuers of the Holocaust.

Although in 1965 the Roman Catholic Church - confronted with the reality of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel – rescinded its doctrine that God had cursed the Jews to eternal wandering for killing Christ, efforts to mend fences with the Jewish people remained slow and begrudging until Pope John Paul II took office. He soon became the first pope to declare anti-Semitism a sin against God; to visit a synagogue; to affirm the right of Jews to return to their ancient homeland; and to confirm the enduring nature of God’s covenants with the "elder brothers" of Christianity.

Yet a series of polls just before his visit indicated few Israelis were aware of these developments. And although the Vatican had apologized on over three dozen occasions for the hateful actions of individual "sons and daughters of the Church" against Jews, many hoped that at Yad Vashem, this remarkable Pope would express regret for the Catholic Church’s collective responsibility for sowing the seeds of the Holocaust and remaining silent at its depths. Indeed, the Vatican has yet to address the historical facts that the Nazis – in passing the racist Nürnberg laws, forcing Jews to wear yellow stars and placing them in ghettos – were simply emulating actions which originated within the Catholic Church. Sadly, there exists an irrefutable connection between centuries of anti-Semitic Catholic teachings and the prevailing mindset in wartime Europe which allowed Hitler to single out the Jews for annihilation.

Thus, all eyes were focused on the moment when the ailing John Paul II toured Yad Vashem to pay homage to the over six million Jewish victims of the Shoah. There, the Pope made a show of empathy for Jewish suffering that will be hard for many Israelis to forget, especially when he warmly consoled a weeping Holocaust survivor who claimed he had once saved her life. But the Jewish memory of this event will be mixed with disappointment over the Pope’s cautious apologetic message, as he broke no new ground and actually fell short of past statements.

After laying a wreath on a slab where the ashes of Jews from six extermination camps are buried, the Pope leaned on his cane while silently staring down for half a minute at the eternal flame flickering in the dim, cool Hall of Remembrance - a place designed to leave one uncomfortable. Finally addressing the gathering, he stated: "As bishop of Rome and successor of the Apostle Peter, I assure the Jewish people that the Catholic Church, motivated by the Gospel law of truth and love and by no political considerations, is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution, and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place."

PM Barak – who recalled that his own grandparents from Warsaw were sent to their deaths in Treblinka – accepted the Pope’s pleas and hailed his efforts in healing Christian-Jewish relations. But he also made a veiled reference to the silence of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust, noting that when the Jews "were led from all over Christian Europe to the crematoria and the gas chambers, it seemed that no longer could one place any hope in God or man... And the silence was not only from the heavens."

Nonetheless, the Vatican sees the Church as a victim of Nazi persecution as well, and believes its recent words of contrition are more than sufficient. Ultimately, it was more interested in protecting the self-image of the Catholic Church and Pius XII - who is up for beatification.

Later that day, the Pope hosted Jewish and Muslim leaders for an interfaith gathering that turned sour when Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau was heckled by Palestinian guests. A top PA sheikh stoked passions further by rattling off a list of grievances committed by "the occupier," who was "strangling Jerusalem and oppressing its residents." He charged Israel with a long record of "genocide," and later stormed out of the gathering before the ceremonial planting of an olive tree.

The next morning, the papal tour moved on to a rainy Galilee, where the skies parted on up to 100,000 hearty Catholic faithful – predominantly youth – gathered to share in an outdoor Mass near the traditional site of the Sermon on the Mount. On Shabbat, the Pope conducted a private Mass at the Basilica of the Annunciationin Nazareth – where radical Muslims grudgingly kept a low profile at the hotly disputed site where they want to build a provocative grand mosque.

Pope John Paul II ended his landmark pilgrimage on a Sunday by visiting the most revered, and contested, sites in the Old City of Jerusalem. While the pontiff’s dramatic moment at the Western Wall capped his over-all positive message towards the Jews and his Mass at the Holy Sepulchre highlighted his concerns for Christian unity, his encounter with Muslims on the Temple Mount turned into another arduous test in divine grace.

On the Temple Mount, the Pope was greeted by Palestinian schoolchildren waving Palestinian flags and chanting slogans under a sea of balloons in nationalist colors. Accompanied by PLO official Faisal Husseini, the acid-tongued Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Ekrima Sabri - a figure appointed by Arafat - called on John Paul II "to end the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem." Israeli and Vatican officials were already approaching the meeting with a note of dread, especially after the Mufti charged the day before that Israel has exaggerated the figure of six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust to gain international support. "It’s not my problem," Sabri told the AP. "Muslims didn’t do anything on this issue. It’s the doing of Hitler who hated the Jews," he added. [Muslims indeed were deeply involved with Hitler’s attempts to exterminate the Jews; please see this month’s Backgrounder. Ed.]

"Six million? It was a lot less," Sabri repeated for an Italian newspaper. "It’s not my fault if Hitler hated the Jews. Anyway, they hate them just about everywhere." With the media spotlight suddenly focused on him, the Mufti also suggested to Reuters that Israel uses the Holocaust "for political gain and blackmail."

Put on the spot again, John Paul II decided to stay above the fray, responding that "Jerusalem has always been revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims." The pontiff was accompanied by Israeli security to the Mount and did not actually enter either the Dome of the Rock or al-Aqsa mosque. Surprisingly, immediately after the Pope left, Husseini was stoned by dozens of Muslim youths, apparently riled by rumors he was offering the Vatican the symbolic keys to Jerusalem and al-Aqsa.

The Pope then made his way to the Western Wall, where he followed Jewish tradition by placing a written prayer in a crevice. After his visit to the Kotel, the Pope entered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for a special Mass for some 200 invited guests and clergy from sects who often clash for control over every inch of the Church. He later made an unscheduled return to the Church for private prayer as his last act before departing the Holy Land.

"God of our fathers, You chose Abraham and his descendants to bring Your Name to the Nations. We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of Yours to suffer, and asking Your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant."
The text of the short typed prayer with official seal placed by Pope John Paul II in a crevice of the Western Wall.
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