00 5/4/2009 7:31 PM

Vatican plays down differences
on the eve of Pope's Israel trip

by Steven Gutkin

JERUSALEM, May 4 (AP) – The Vatican's representative to the Holy Land on Monday played down the controversies that could mar a visit next week by Pope Benedict XVI: the conduct of a wartime predecessor, a Roman Catholic prayer for converting the Jews and the church's perceived lenience toward a Holocaust-denying bishop.

A papal visit to the Holy Land is not the time to "quarrel for this or that," said Monsignor Antonio Franco, the Apostolic Nuncio to Israel.

The Pope is scheduled to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories May 11-15. It's only the second official papal visit to the Jewish state and comes nine years after a groundbreaking trip by Pope John Paul II, who moved many by praying at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray.

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."

Franco said a joint Jewish-Catholic commission is working hard to resolve the controversy over whether Pius XII, the pope who reigned during World War II, did enough to try to stop the Holocaust — the issue that has emerged as perhaps the most difficult in relations between the two religions.

"We are widening the vision and the understanding of a very difficult period of history," Franco said at a news conference in Jerusalem. "For sure this will not be an issue of discussion on the visit of the Holy Father."

Rosen, who held a news conference right after Franco's, had a different take.

"I wouldn't be surprised if it were mentioned in passing" during Benedict's visit, he said.

At issue is a caption under a photo of Pius at Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust museum alleging that he did not protest as Nazis rounded up Jews in Europe and sent them to their deaths.

Benedict has referred to Pius as a "great" churchman and the Holy See insists he used quiet diplomacy to try to help Jews. In September, he praised what he called Pius's "courageous and paternal dedication" in trying to save Jews.

"Wherever possible, he spared no effort in intervening in their favor either directly or through instructions given to other individuals or to institutions of the Catholic Church," Benedict said. A movement inside the church has been seeking Pius's beatification for the past 25 years — stirring great opposition among Jews.

"It's not the business of the Jewish people to tell the Catholic church who its saints are," said Rosen, who heads the American Jewish Committee's Department for Inter-religious Affairs and is the first Orthodox rabbi to receive a papal Knighthood.

However, he said making Pius a saint "would be seen as some sort of whitewashing of the period of the Shoah," using the Hebrew word for the Holocaust.

[In what way is it a whitewash at all? Beatification of Pius XII does not stop anyone interested to go on 'researching' Pius XII's true actions in World War II. And earlier than that, they can all have the chance to present their case against Pius XII during the beatification and canonization processes which require rigorous examination of the candidate's entire record. All the Jewish militants keep ignoring this obvious fact deliberately!]

Two other controversies have also caused tensions with Jews during Benedict's tenure. Earlier this year, the Pope lifted the excommunication of a bishop who had denied the Holocaust. He later acknowledged mistakes by the Vatican in reaching out to the renegade.

[NO! The Pope acknowledged mistakes in the Vatican's internal and external communications procedures, but not the fact that Williamson happens to be one of four bishops whose excommunication has been lifted, because the excommunication issue has nothing to do with ideology or morals or dogma but with a violation of canon law.]

Benedict's 2007 decision to relax restrictions on celebrating the old Latin Mass also caused consternation by restoring to prominence a prayer for the conversion of the Jews recited during Easter Week.

[It does nothing of the sort - no one has paid attention to that prayer (said once a year) in over five decades until militant Jews chose to call attention to it. But they never protested even if it was in use by traditionalist groups given an indult during the John Paul II years, when it was used in an even more 'archaic' form which the Jews resented because it referred to their 'blindness' in not recognizing Jesus.]

Franco on Monday said both those issues have been resolved, stressing that Catholics do not pray for the conversion of Jews.

"We leave to God the conversion," he said.

Israel and the Vatican established diplomatic ties in the early 1990s, but they still must resolve a number of issues such as the status of church property in the Holy Land and tax exemptions for the church.

Benedict's visit to Israel is also imbued with a certain poignance because he is German. As a teenager named Joseph Ratzinger, he served in the Hitler Youth movement, though he has written that the Nazis forced him to do so.

Both Franco and Rosen on Monday denied reports that Benedict's decision not to visit Yad Vashem's museum section had something to do with the Pius controversy.

[Why not mention that John Paul II did not visit the museum either when he went to Yad Vashem? It is a huge complex, and the museum is really not an imperative except for regular tourists who want to have the whole Yad Vashem experience. That's not the point of the Pope's visit! Even 'lesser' vhisiting heads of state do not ncessarily visit the Museum. The Memorial Halls are the hearr of Yad Vashem, and that is where one best renders homage to the victims of the Holocasut.]

Like most dignitaries visiting Israel, Benedict will lay a wreath at the Yad Vashem memorial and is scheduled to meet with Holocaust survivors there.

During his visit, the Pope will also head to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, in addition to visits to the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock, where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the traditional site of Jesus's crucifixion and burial.

He will hold open-air Masses in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth.

Benedict has a strong record in building Catholic-Jewish relations [even long before he became Pope, and he provided the theological underpinning for John Paul II's gestured towards the Jews!] He has visited the Nazi death camp Auschwitz in Poland and synagogues in Germany and the United States.

Rosen, who has known Benedict for many years, said the Pope at one point told him that Jews "are the living roots of the Church."

"It's an important comment and he deeply believes in it," Rosen said.

Israeli President proposes
yielding Christian sites
to Vatican control in
goodwill gesture

President Shimon Peres wants to give up Israeli sovereignty over key Christian holy sites to the Vatican, according to an Army Radio report Monday, a proposition which is reportedly opposed by Interior Minister Eli Yishai.

According to the report, the issue ruffled feathers among senior Israeli officials.

Beit Hanassi [the Israeli presidential residence] could not be reached for comment, as it does not issue statements to the press while the President is abroad.

Army Radio said that the President was exerting pressure on the government to give up sovereignty over six sites including the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, the Coenaculum on Mount Zion, Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, and the Church of the Multiplication on the Kinneret.

On Sunday, according to the report, Beit Hanassi requested that the Interior Ministry sign documents conceding sovereignty on the sites, however the interior minister refused.

Yishai was quoted as saying that he opposes all yielding of sovereignty.

"Every concession like this limits the Israeli government's ability to function as a sovereign government in the area," he said.

Referring to Pope Benedict XVI's upcoming visit to the region scheduled for May 11-15, he said, "I am certain that the aim of the Pope's visit is not to cause damage and not to gain sovereignty."

Relinquishing sovereignty over the sites would mean that they would legally belong to Vatican City, and that any Israeli request to pave roads, or lay water, sewerage or electrical infrastructure would have to be approved by the Vatican.

"If we were sure that this present to the Christian world would bring millions of Christian pilgrims here, then we would have a good reason to think about it," Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov was quoted as saying.

"But since we're not sure that it will happen, why should we give out gifts?"

Former Meretz chair Yossi Beilin, however, was quoted in the report as saying that Israel had not behaved satisfactorily in recent dealings with the Vatican. "We need to compromise with them," he said.

The Army Radio report also quoted Beit Hanassi as saying that the negotiations had been going on for long enough, and that the time had come to compromise with the Vatican and come to an agreement.

Vatican denies rumors
of Baghdad visit by the Pope

BAGHDAD, May 4 (dpa) - A report published in a leading Baghdad daily that Pope Benedict XVI may visit Iraq in mid-May as part of his tour of the Middle East momentarily sparked excitement among Iraq's Christians on Monday, until the Vatican quashed the rumour.

Baghdad's al-Sabbah newspaper quoted an unnamed lawmaker as saying that the Vatican was considering a visit to Baghdad on invitation from Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

But chief Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, speaking to reporters in Vatican City later on Monday, said the reports did "not appear serious."

Pope Benedict XVI is expected to visit Jordan, Israel and the West Bank on his tour of the Middle East, which is scheduled to begin Friday.

"I don't expect improvised (changes of plan). The schedule has already been defined," Lombardi said.

The Pope's visit "would let him see situation on the ground, particularly for the (Iraqi) Christian community," al-Sabbah had quoted an unnamed Iraqi lawmaker as saying.

The newspaper has a record of predicting unscheduled visits to Iraq. Most recently, in March, al-Sabbah reported that US President Barack Obama would visit Baghdad in the beginning of April, weeks before the US president arrived in an unannounced visit.

Since the fall of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's government in 2003, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians have fled the country, driven from their homes in part by the bloodshed that has stalked the country, and in part by specific threats and intimidation from extremist groups specifically targeting them as Christians.

Fewer than 600,000 Christians remain in Iraq, down from an estimated 1.2 million before the 2003 US-led invasion.

[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 5/5/2009 12:14 AM]