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5/7/2009 2:50 PM
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Benedict follows John Paul's footsteps
in the Holy Land but times have changed


VATICAN CITY, May 7 (AP) - Pope Benedict XVI begins a weeklong tour in the Middle East on Friday, a self-described "pilgrim of peace" seeking to strengthen frayed ties with Muslims and Jews and give support to his beleaguered Christian flock in the region.

The trip is designed along the lines of Pope John Paul II's historic pilgrimage in 2000 to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, including stops associated with Biblical events and the life of Christ.

But the conditions for the German-born Benedict's visit are vastly different since the Polish-born John Paul, who grew up in the shadow of Auschwitz, stood at Jerusalem's Western Wall and left a handwritten note apologizing for anti-Semitism by Christians.

In his fours years in the papacy, Benedict has infuriated both Muslims and Jews, first with a speech linking the Prophet Muhammad to violence, then when he lifted the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop.

A peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians that seemed so near at the time of John Paul's visit has proven elusive. Benedict's trip was put in doubt by Israeli anger after a Vatican cardinal said earlier this year that the Gaza Strip during an Israeli military offensive resembled a "big concentration camp."

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the fact the trip is happening is in itself "a sign of hope" that the Pope can contribute to reconciliation in the Middle East.

"There were those after the Gaza conflict who wondered whether the trip would take place," the Rev. Lombardi told reporters this week.

The stop in Jordan will be Benedict's first visit as Pope to an Arab country, although he visited predominantly Islamic Turkey three years ago.

Addressing himself to Jordanians, Israelis and Palestinians during his general audience Wednesday, Benedict said he shared their "aspirations and hopes as well as your pain and struggles. I will be coming among you as a pilgrim of peace."

While officials in Jordan and Israel are seeking to play down any controversy, differences remain.

Jordan's King Abdullah II, who is scheduled to greet Benedict upon arrival, said in an Italian newspaper interview Tuesday that he expected Benedict to be a force for peace.

But the country's powerful Muslim Brotherhood has demanded that Benedict apologize for his September 2006 speech in which he quoted a Medieval text that characterized some of the teachings of Muhammad as "evil and inhuman," particularly "his command to spread by the sword the faith."

The Pope has already said he was "deeply sorry" over the reaction to his speech and that the passage he quoted did not reflect his own opinion.

Lombardi said the Vatican has made all possible clarifications, telling Associated Press Television News that "we cannot continue until the end of the world to repeat the same clarifications."

During his three-day stay in Jordan, Benedict is scheduled to meet with Muslim religious leaders at Amman's largest mosque — his second visit to a Muslim place of worship since becoming Pope in 2005.

He prayed in Istanbul's famed Blue Mosque, a gesture that helped calm the outcry over his remarks.

Benedict, who visited Israel three times before becoming Pope, faces a different set of issues in the Jewish state.

The Pope's forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism and acknowledgment of Vatican mistakes have softened Jewish anger over the bishop who denied the Holocaust. Benedict had lifted his excommunication along with three other ultraconservative prelates in a bid to end a church schism. Amid the uproar, the Church has not allowed the bishop to resume his duties as bishop. {Another display of ignorance - a persistent one: The excommunications were lifted but that has not at all regularized the illegal consecration of the four bishops that occasioned the excommunication.]

Lombardi said rabbis who recently visited the Vatican "were very happy and said that maybe some misunderstanding is a good occasion to have a better understanding."

Another sore point is the figure of World War II Pope Pius XII, whom Benedict has called a "great churchman." Jews and others say he failed to do all he could to stop the extermination of European Jews.

Benedict will meet with a group of Holocaust survivors at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem memorial, though he will skip its museum, which houses a picture of Pius that has been criticized by the Vatican. The photo's caption says Pius did not protest the Nazi genocide of Jews and maintained a largely "neutral position."

Despite the dispute, Jewish leaders say Benedict, who served in the Hitler Youth corps as a young man [he was a teenager!] in Germany and then in the army before deserting near the end of the war, has an excellent record in fighting anti-Semitism. He has already visited synagogues in Cologne, Germany, and New York, and is expected at Rome's central synagogue later this year.

Rabbi David Rosen, one of Israel's leading voices in interfaith relations, portrayed Benedict as a good friend of the Jews and described differences with him as "an issue of style rather than an issue of substance."

Lombardi said Benedict will deliver all his speeches on the trip in English. This avoids any potential problem from his speaking in his native German, which could upset Holocaust survivors. [What a ridiculous statement! Why would he speak German in a place where thelanguages are Hebrew and Arabic? Englis happens to be itnernational llingua franca. Where does German come into the question at all in non-Germanophone countries?]

The Pope also has Christian interests to look after, particularly seeking to stem the exodus of Christians from their ancient communities in the Middle East because of war and economic hardships.

He is expected to meet in Jordan with Iraqi Christians, driven from their homeland by violence, and with representatives of the tiny Catholic community of Gaza when he stops in Bethlehem. Israel is expected to allow Gaza's Catholics to travel to the West Bank to celebrate Mass in the town of Jesus's birth.

"Today's world is truly in need of (God's) peace, especially as it faces the tragedies of war, division, poverty and despair," Benedict told a crowd Sunday in St. Peter's Square.

Associated Press writer Josef Federman contributed to this report from Jerusalem.

And here's something that Catholic prelates alreaday announced at the Jerusalem news conference the other day [See 5/5/ post from Vaticna Radioa dn the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem on this page]:

Palestinians scrap plan
to host Pope near barrier

RAMALLAH, West Bank, May 7 (AP) – An official says the Palestinian Authority has scrapped plans to receive Pope Benedict XVI next week on a stage near Israel's West Bank separation barrier.

Palestinians hoped receiving the Pope next to a towering cement wall and military watchtower inside the Aida refugee camp would highlight suffering under Israeli occupation.

Palestinian lawmaker Essa Qaraqie said Thursday that the location was changed to a U.N. school after military officials forbade them to erect the stage near the barrier.

The Pope's convoy will still pass near the wall.

Israeli officials accuse the Palestinians of politicizing the Pope's Holy Land visit.

Israel says the barrier is meant to keep out attackers. Palestinians say it's a land grab. [How cna it be a land grab if it is located on the boundary line, which it is? The Jewish settlements on Palestinian territory are a land grab, which cann ot be justified under any excuse!]

Palestinian plans for the Pope's visit
hit a wall in Bethlehem

By Ilene R. Prusher

May 6, 2009

Bethlehem, West Bank - For weeks, laborers have been laying new tiles and leaders have been finalizing their plans for welcoming one of the most important visitors the Aida Refugee Camp has ever seen: Pope Benedict XVI, who will embark on a historic visit to the Holy Land next week.

But despite giving the stone amphitheater here a face-lift – with funds from the Palestinian Authority (PA) – their plans to host the pope have hit a glitch, or to be exact, a wall.

The Vatican has informed Palestinian officials that the papal visit will be held at a nearby United Nations school instead of on the stage they were preparing for him, raising a wave of local ire. [The papal nuncio in Jerusalem said the other day the plan was always for teh pope to speak at the UN school.]

What's in a stage?

There is no other venue in the world with a backdrop quite like this one. It sits in the looming shadow of the West Bank separation barrier built by Israel, complete with a forbidding watchtower.

The massive concrete slabs here are painted with anti-Israeli graffiti, calls for Palestinian freedom, and a white patch on which the camp's community center sometimes screens films. From the point of view of Palestinians who live here, there is no vista which conveys their reality better than this one.

"We want to show the Pope the wall, and the big prison that the Israelis have put us in," says Samir Oudeh, head of the Popular Committee of Aida Refugee Camp, as he stands atop the long, narrow, open-air theater that hugs the wall. "This is our catastrophe, and we know that they don't want the world to see it."

Vatican officials made several visits here in recent weeks, but about a week ago, says Mr. Oudeh, he was informed that the Pope would speak in a nearby school – and not on the stage. "We learned later that the Israelis put pressure on the Vatican to change the venue," he says.

An Israeli official in Jerusalem rejects the claim that Israel interfered with the decision, but expressed approval of the Holy See's move to avoid "politicizing" the papal visit.

However, about a week ago, Israeli soldiers came and took pictures of the site and warned those working on it that the structure was illegal and could be torn down soon.

A youth who lives in the camp and works as a volunteer on the site describes their arrival. "The Israelis came and said, 'You're not allowed to continue this work.' They even took pictures of us and threatened to put us in jail if we continued,' " says Atieh Abu Akr.

Oudeh shows reporters photographs of Israeli soldiers filming the workers, and a copy of the stop-work order they left behind. The land here is designated as Area C, the part of the West Bank under full Israeli military control.

The local welcome committee for the Pope, however, has decided to march on with their plans, setting the stage for a less-than-comfortable atmosphere on the eve of the visit. On Wednesday, workers were still busy preparing the site as if nothing had changed.

"As the official committee to welcome the Pope, we have decided that we will insist on finishing this area and welcoming the Pope here," says Oudeh. To his left, the wall blocks the view of the rolling landscape and of Rachel's Tomb of biblical fame. Nearby, ramshackle buildings overflow with people and laundry lines.

A UN study released Wednesday says that only 13 percent of Bethlehem land is available for Palestinian use, much of it fragmented. Moreover, 66 percent of the land is designated as Area C, where Israel retains control over building and planning, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs found.

The residents, who number about 4,000, are disappointed. "Last night, we had a meeting in the camp, and when we told the residents that the Pope won't speak here, they were very angry," Oudeh says.

The frustration, local Palestinians say, is not just with Israel or the Vatican, but what they describe as the PA's acquiescence.

"If the PA agrees to this, there will be real disgust," says Abdelfattah Abusrour, who runs the Alrowwad Cultural Theatre and Training Center here. "But at the end of the day, the Pope will pass by here and the wall will be visible in every way. Even if he doesn't sit in front of it, they can't hide it."

The spokesman for the Vatican in Israel says there has been no change in venue, and that officials decided several weeks ago that the school was the most appropriate place for the Pope's address.

"The Holy Father will pass by the wall on his way in and out of Bethlehem, and regardless of where he will sit, the misery of the Palestinians will be known," says Wadie Abu Nassar. "It is a very sensitive matter there, but this issue was agreed on since the beginning. There are several factors no one can hide. First, that there is a wall. Second, the Palestinian refugees live in terrible conditions, and third, there's an occupation."

A spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry said that the papal visit should focus on bringing the religions together, not highlighting political issues.

"We believe that the choices the Vatican is making are the right ones," says Andy David, a Foreign Ministry spokesman. "This visit is intended to bring the three religions together to create an atmosphere of cooperation and send a message of peace. Trying to use the visit to emphasize disputes, we think, is not the right way to treat the Pope's visit."

[It is, of course, an obvious and deplorable attempt to exploit the Pope's visit. He is neither stupid or uninforemd. He knows about the Israeli security fence, and probably disapproves of it, but he is a state guest in Israel, and outside of elenentary courtesy considerations, he would not in any case lend himself to any cheap propaganda exploitation.

The UN findings on land use availabi8lity in Bethlehenm is distressing, but if existing agreements give the Israelis military control over most of Bethlehem, then that's the way it is, unfortunately. Palestinians surely do not expect Israel to voluntarily give up an agreement that has been in force for years; they would never do it if the shoe were on the other foot.]

Pope's visit boosts Jordanian
site of Jesus's baptism

By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor

BETHANY BEYOND THE JORDAN, May 7 (Reuters) – When Pope Benedict stops to pray at a pool of still green water here on Sunday, his visit will bolster the case that Jesus was baptized at this spot on the east bank of the Jordan River.

The exact location is unclear and a rival spot across the narrow muddy river has long claimed to be the place where John the Baptist and Jesus met for the cleansing ritual.

But for over a decade now, Jordanian experts have unearthed ruins of ancient churches amid the tamarisk trees here and found early pilgrims' writings about the site. Christian denominations have begun building new churches for modern pilgrims nearby.

Rustom Mkhjian, assistant director of the Baptism Site Commission developing the area, said the archaeological evidence showed early Christians saw this as the true site.

"Why did they insist on building churches on this point?" he asked at an observation post on the wooded flood plain a short walk inland from the river. "The answer is clear. This is where Jesus was baptized."

The Pope, who tours Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories from May 8 to 15, will visit the site and lay cornerstones for two Catholic churches on higher ground nearby.

What's not done may be just as telling as what is. Benedict will not visit the rival site at Qasr al Yahud on the west bank. When Pope John Paul visited the region in 2000, he celebrated Mass at Bethany but slotted in a quick stop at Qasr al Yahud.

The Vatican nuncio (ambassador) in Amman, Archbishop Francis Assisi Chullikat, said confirming the site's authenticity or not "was not the point of the Holy Father's visit."

But the local Catholic Church has joined Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, heads of world Lutheran and Baptist groups and several Orthodox leaders backing it. The star United States evangelical pastor Rick Warren recently joined in.


Winning recognition for Bethany as the authentic baptism site is not simply a matter of local pride. It boosts Jordan's image as an important Holy Land pilgrimage site.

"Tourism accounts for 12 percent of our gross domestic product, and 25 percent of those tourists go to the baptism site," said a senior official in Amman who asked not to be named. "We want more tourists to come here."

Jordan's generous support in developing the site, offering land for churches and pilgrimage centers and trying to keep its dwindling Christian minority from emigrating also fits into a wider policy of fostering religious harmony here, he said.

Religion is not a divisive issue in this mostly Muslim country, but some analysts fear it could become one if the Christian minority, now down to about 1.5 percent, disappeared and Islam became a point of dispute in Jordanian politics.

"Christian-Muslim harmony is a national security issue," the official said. Keeping religious harmony helps maintain a social and political balance among majority Palestinians, minority tribes and other groups.

Christians are guaranteed nine percent of parliamentary seats, reflecting the size the minority once had. That level has dropped because of falling birth rates, regional instability and a higher education level that enabled many to emigrate.


Isolated in a closed military zone from 1967 to 1994, the Bethany baptism site was discovered in the late 1990s by experts heeding St. John's Gospel, which described the place three times as being "beyond the Jordan" rather than on the west bank.

Writings by pilgrims from the 4th to 12th centuries spoke of a stairway to the water and pillars holding up churches against occasional flooding. Excavations have uncovered the stairs, foundations of five churches and several other sites.

Floods and earthquakes destroyed those churches, but persistent rebuilding on the site and early pilgrimages there convinced the Jordanians this was the right location.

Palestinian Tourism Minister Khouloud Daibes, a Christian, told Reuters: "According to our religion, the whole river is a site of baptism, but for the past 2,000 years pilgrims have been coming to this site (on the west bank)."

I completely missed this April 30 column by John Allen which was on three subjects, leading off with LA Cardinal Roger Mahoney's thoughts about the future of Catholic ministry, and then coimmenting on the Pope's visit to the Abruzzo, before ending with the item about teh Holy Land trip. Much of it has been previously reported, and since then, some of the issues have been resolved even, one way or the other:

Headaches in the Holy Land

April 30, 2009

I’ve written for the last couple of weeks about the multiple balancing acts Benedict will have to perform on his May 8-15 visit to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Reminders keep rolling in of the headaches awaiting the Pope.


- Followers of Sheikh Nazem Abu Salim, a fiery Muslim preacher in Nazareth, have put up a large banner, right next to the famed Church of the Annunciation, condemning those who insult Muhammad -- an obvious reference to Benedict XVI’s 2006 speech in Regensburg, in which he cited a Byzantine emperor with nasty things to say about the founder of Islam.

(In a verse lifted from the Qur’an, the banner reads: “Those who harm G-d and His Messenger -- G-d has cursed them in this world and in the hereafter, and has prepared for them a humiliating punishment.”)

Given that Benedict XVI is scheduled to be in Nazareth on May 14, the anniversary of the declaration of the State of Israel, and that he’s planning to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that day, the situation seems particularly combustible.

An Israeli newspaper reported this week that Shin Bet, Israel’s security service, has counseled Benedict against using the partially exposed popemobile in Nazareth out of concern for potential threats.

- In Jordan, members of the Muslim Brotherhood have demanded a public apology from the pope for his Regensburg speech; otherwise, they’ve threatened to stage protests while the pope is in Amman. The Vatican’s position is that such an apology has already been delivered, and more than once.

- A petition on the Internet asking Benedict XVI to visit the Gaza Strip while he’s in the Holy Land has collected around 3,000 signatures, including several dozen Catholic priests, sisters, and brothers. (A couple members of the Community of Sant’Egidio initiated the petition, albeit on their own initiative.]

Privately, Vatican officials say that a visit to Gaza has not been seriously considered -- in part for reasons of security, and in part because it would likely become an occasion for anti-Israeli agitprop. The Pope will address the situation in Gaza, they say, while he’s in the region.

- Israeli and Palestinian officials are squabbling over the location of the stage for Benedict’s visit to the Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem on May 13.

Palestinians want to put the stage immediately next to a large concrete wall that’s part of Israel’s security barrier in the West Bank, while the Israelis want it somewhere else.

Ostensibly it’s a dispute over permits and logistics, but the obvious political subtext is that the Palestinians want to make a statement about what they see as an illegitimate Israeli occupation. In the end, it may not matter, since locals say there’s no point in the camp from which the wall isn’t visible.

(One coincidence worth recalling: Benedict XVI will be in Bethlehem on May 13, which is not only the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, but also the anniversary of the 1981 assassination attempt against John Paul II.)

- A Jewish anti-missionary organization in Israel called Yad L’Achim has called on Benedict XVI to use his trip to appeal to Catholics worldwide for help in identifying Jewish children saved from the Nazis by being placed in Catholic homes, who were never told of their Jewish origins.

The group issued an open letter to Benedict, charging that the families withheld this information on instructions from Pius XII, the wartime pontiff whose alleged “silence” during the Holocaust has long been a source of friction in Jewish/Catholic relations.

- On Thursday, municipal officials in Jerusalem ordered the demolition of a two-story addition to a monastery and church owned by the Armenian Catholic church in the Old City. The addition had been built, church officials said, to house Vatican dignitaries visiting Jerusalem.

Some local Christian leaders charged that the demolition order is part of an Israeli effort to wipe out the Christian presence in the Old City, thereby “Judaizing” the area, and vowed to raise the issue with the Pope.

- Last week, Israel’s Tourism Minister, Stas Misezhnikov, publicly demanded that Benedict XVI not meet the mayor of Skahnin, a large Arab town inside Israel, at the end of his General Audience in Rome on April 29.

The mayor, Mazen Ghanaim, had planned to greet the pope, but Misezhnikov accused him of supporting terrorism, insisting that any acknowledgement from the Pope would be “in complete contradiction” with the spirit of his visit.

Arab leaders reacted angrily, charging that Misezhnikov’s comments are part of a racist campaign to paint Arabs in the country as fifth columnists. In the end, Ghanaim was notified that his tickets for the audience had been withdrawn.

Yet all is not heartburn in the run-up to the trip.

This week brought a story out of Bethlehem, for example, about a Muslim calligrapher named Yasser Abu Saymeh who was commissioned by the city’s mayor to prepare a copy of the Gospel of Luke for the Pope in traditional Arabic script.

While Abu Saymeh said he’d never before read the New Testament, he was struck by what the two faiths have in common, and said he comes out of the experience with a new commitment to “brotherly relations” between Christians and Muslims.

- Meanwhile, more than 100 rabbis, representing all the major branches of Judaism, are planning to take out an ad in Ha’Aretz, the oldest and most influential paper in Israel, welcoming the Pope and expressing support for his “mission of peace.”

The ad features a quote from Nostra Aetate, the document of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) on other religions, and directs readers to a web site where they can learn about what the rabbis call a “transformation” in Jewish-Catholic relations since Vatican II.

The idea for the ad came from American Rabbi Jack Bemporad, a Holocaust refugee from Italy and founder of the Center for Inter-Religious Understanding in New Jersey.

[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 5/7/2009 4:31 PM]
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