00 5/15/2009 6:46 AM

Pope nears end of Holy Land trip
with visit to Nazareth

By John Thavis

NAZARETH, Israel, May 14 (CNS) -- Nearing the end of his Holy Land pilgrimage, Pope Benedict XVI came to Nazareth, the city where Jesus grew up, and appealed for the strengthening of family bonds in the region and the world.

The papal Mass May 14, celebrated in a new amphitheater built into Nazareth's Mount Precipice, drew about 40,000 people, the biggest crowd on his eight-day pilgrimage. The Pope had earlier visited Jordan, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem in the Palestinian territories.

In his homily, the Pope said modern society needs to recognize the sacred nature of the family, "which in God's plan is based on the lifelong fidelity of a man and a woman consecrated by the marriage covenant and accepting God's gift of new life."

Later, the Pope met with Christian and non-Christian religious leaders of Galilee and emphasized the need to ease tensions over places of worship.

In Nazareth, a decade of dispute over a planned mosque near the Basilica of the Annunciation has soured relations between Christians and Muslims.

He urged all people of faith to protect children from "fanaticism and violence" and to teach respect for the beliefs and traditions of other religions.

Then the Pontiff, smiling broadly, stood and held hands in prayer with other participants as a specially composed psalm was sung, using the words of peace in Arabic, Hebrew and English: "Salam, Shalom, Lord grant us peace."

Later, the pope led a prayer service for Catholics in the Basilica of the Annunciation. He said that with the appearance of the angel to Mary announcing that she would bear Jesus, God entered into human history. God's action in history holds a lesson for modern times, he said.

"We cannot do whatever we please with the world; rather, we are called to conform our choices to the subtle yet nonetheless perceptible laws inscribed by the Creator upon the universe," he said.

In a meeting in a Franciscan convent with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Pope discussed how to advance prospects for Middle East peace.

The 82-year-old pontiff came to Israel from Jordan May 11. At an airport welcoming ceremony in Tel Aviv, he honored the memory of the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and prayed that "humanity will never again witness a crime of such magnitude."

"Sadly, anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head in many parts of the world. This is totally unacceptable," he said.

In a visit that day to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, Pope Benedict prayed silently before the eternal flame in the Hall of Remembrance and said the suffering of Jews under the Nazi extermination campaign must "never be denied, belittled or forgotten."

The Pope called the Holocaust an atrocity that disgraced mankind and said the church is committed to working tirelessly "to ensure that hatred will never reign in the hearts of men again."

He met with six Holocaust survivors, who later expressed their appreciation for the Pope's gesture. But some Jewish leaders said they were disappointed that the German Pope made no mention in his talk of the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust.

That evening, the Pope told a group of inter-religious dialogue experts that, in a world that has in some ways become "deaf to the divine," religions must give common witness to God's rightful place in the world.

The event was marred by a Muslim sheik's denunciation of Israeli policies, which prompted some Jewish representatives to walk out.

On May 12, the Pope celebrated an open-air Mass in Jerusalem, prayed at the Western Wall and visited one of Islam's most sacred shrines. [Thavis has the events in reverse order!] The events underscored his message that Jerusalem, a meeting ground for Christianity, Judaism and Islam, must again become a city of peace.

The {ope made a morning visit to the Dome of the Rock, sacred to Muslims as the place from which Mohammed ascended to heaven. He told Islamic leaders there that Christians, Muslims and Jews have a "grave responsibility" to expand dialogue and mend divisions.

He then went to the Western Wall, a site sacred to Jews as the remains of the Second Temple, and placed a written prayer in a crevice between the massive stones. It asked God to "hear the cry of the afflicted" and "send your peace upon this Holy Land."

In the evening, the Pope celebrated Mass for several thousand people in the Josafat Valley, beneath the Mount of Olives, and called for Jerusalem to regain its vocation as a "promise of that universal reconciliation and peace" against the "despair, frustration and cynicism" that afflict the city today.

Visiting the West Bank city of Bethlehem May 13, Pope Benedict called for an independent Palestinian state and urged young people to reject acts of violence and terrorism.

He celebrated Mass in the city of Christ's birth and encouraged Christians to be a "bridge of dialogue and constructive cooperation in the building of a culture of peace to replace the present stalemate of fear, aggression and frustration."

To reach Bethlehem, the Pope crossed the border from Israel through a gate in the most striking feature on the landscape: Israel's 26-foot-tall concrete security wall.

Speaking at the Aida Refugee Camp later in the day, he said it was tragic to see new walls being erected at a time when more and more of the world's borders were being opened up.

The Pope began his eight-day trip in Jordan, where he walked a pilgrim's path, energizing its minority Christian population and building bridges to the moderate Muslim world.

Arriving at Amman's airport May 8 he said he had come with "deep respect" for the Muslim community. It was Pope Benedict's first trip to an Arab country.

The Pope paid tribute to interfaith dialogues launched by Jordanian leaders, saying they have advanced an "alliance of civilizations between the West and the Muslim world, confounding the predictions of those who consider violence and conflict inevitable."

The following day, the Pope visited the King Hussein Mosque in Amman, pausing briefly in what the Vatican called "respectful meditation" in a Muslim place of prayer.

In a speech afterward to Muslim academics and religious leaders, the Pope warned of the "ideological manipulation of religion" that can act as a catalyst for tensions and violence in contemporary societies.

The Pope traveled May 9 to Mount Nebo, the place where Moses glimpsed the Promised Land before dying, and blessed the foundation of Jordan's first Catholic university in the biblical city of Madaba.

Celebrating Mass May 10 in an Amman soccer stadium for some 25,000 people, the Pope said Christians in the Holy Land have a special vocation to engage in dialogue and build new bridges to other religions and cultures, and to "counter ways of thinking which justify taking innocent lives."

Later in the day the Pope made his way to the Jordan River, where archaeologists believe they have identified the site of Jesus's baptism by St. John the Baptist. He blessed the foundation stones of two Catholic churches to be built at the location.

Pope and Israeli prime minister
discuss peace, dialogue, priests' visas

By Judith Sudilovsky

NAZARETH, Israel, May 14 (CNS) -- Peace in the Middle East, Catholic-Jewish relations and the difficulties of church workers in Israel were just a few of the topics discussed when Pope Benedict XVI met privately May 14 with newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Advancing the Middle East peace process was the main topic during the 15-minute private meeting between the Pope and Prime Minister at the Franciscan convent in Nazareth, said Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman.

Father Lombardi also said the two leaders briefed each other about their recent meetings with Jordan's King Abdullah II. Pope Benedict had met the Jordanian leader May 8, while Netanyahu made a surprise visit to Jordan just hours before meeting the Pope.

After their private meeting, the Pope and Prime Minister were joined by top aides for a 20-minute discussion about the work of a Vatican-Israeli bilateral commission, Father Lombardi said.

The commission, established in 1993, has been working on and off for years trying to find a way to settle agreements related to the tax situation of Catholic institutions in Israel and other primarily fiscal issues.

Despite hopes that the negotiations would have been completed prior to the Pope's visit, the fiscal issues remain unresolved.

After the meeting, Netanyahu told reporters: "I met the Pope first of all because it is important for Israel's relations on a global level; there are a billion Catholics. The Pope stands at the head of the world Catholic community, and we want good relations with such a large part of humanity."

The Prime Minister said they spoke about "the historic process of reconciliation between Christianity and Judaism, and the Pope is very interested."

The Israeli leader also asked the Pope to speak out against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's threats against Israel.

"I told him it cannot be that at the beginning of the 21st century there is a state which says it is going to destroy the Jewish state," the prime minister said.

He said the Pope told him that "he condemns all such things -- anti-Semitism, hate. I think we found in him an attentive ear."

He said Pope Benedict asked him for assistance in getting multiple-entry visas for Catholic clergy from surrounding Arab countries and with other "administrative matters."

"I said we would examine them in a positive atmosphere," Netanyahu said.

According to media reports, Israel recently turned down a church request for multiple-entry visas for 500 priests from Arab countries who work in Israel and the Palestinian territories. [The background to this visa stringency by Israel is that some years back, Israelis caught a few priests who used their multiple-entry visas to smuggle in weapons by car into Israel for Palestinian guerrillas.]

In recent years the issue of visas has become a major point of contention, and the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem has warned that not having the visas hinders the priests' ability to carry out their pastoral work and prevents them from being able to visit their families.

Scarves speak volumes
in Pope's Holy Land visit

By John Thavis

BETHLEHEM, West Bank, May 13 (CNS) -- Sometimes a scarf is worth a thousand words.

Pope Benedict XVI has spoken carefully during his Holy Land pilgrimage - so carefully that it occasionally seemed his talks were written by Vatican diplomats.

[Really? They may have checked the words and phrraseology of any statement that had to do with directly political issues, but I felt that all his speeches in Bethlehem, for instance, were admirably equilibrated from the political point of view.

He said things the Palestinians want to hear which also happen to be right and just and therefore, positions that the Pope himself, personally, as well as the Holy See, as a state, are only too happy to advocate. And of course, compassion for the conditions that the Palestinians have to endure consequent to Israel's stringent security measures including the 'wall'.

And although he said there should be no walls such as this, he immediately followed it by saing that more importantly, there should not be walls around our hearts, about which I believe Palestinians have more unbreachable walls than most Israelis do who have no problem with a Palestine state as long as some of its people do not keep targeting Israelis with violence and terror.

Thus, he always balanced off his encouraging words by gently pointing out - in words, euphemisms even, guaranteed not to give offense to his hosts, Palestinian as well as Israeli - where they needed to do their part in the peace process, such as, in effect, not to foster and support violence and terrorism, not to stick to pre-determined and basically unrealistic demands, not to continue harboring grudges, to look forward instead of harping on the past.]

But the image and the message people will carry from his visit may have more to do with scarves than speeches.

In Bethlehem, during a long evening event at the Aida Refugee Camp, the Pope expressed sympathy for the suffering of families who have been divided and uprooted since the 1948 war that established the country of Israel and dispossessed many Palestinians of their homes.

However, he carefully avoided direct comments on the right of return, the principle that Palestinian refugees have a right to regain possession of their ancestral homes. The issue is an explosive and difficult one in peace talks, in part because of the practical difficulties involved.

The Vatican has generally steered clear of the issue in recent years, though Church officials have suggested on occasion that some form of compensation for those who lost homes might be a fair settlement.

But at the Aida camp, ringed by banners reading "No justice without return home," the sentiment was decidedly more uncompromising.

When the event drew to a close, Palestinian officials announced they had a special gift for the Pontiff: a "scarf of return," designed and embroidered by Palestinian artists.

Lest anyone miss the point, the scarf was full of symbols:

-- The "key of return," symbolizing the keys many Palestinians still keep to their old homes.

-- The papal keys, implying the Pope had the moral authority to make a difference on the issue in the international arena.

-- Images of the Star of Bethlehem, the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Nativity, "to express the unity of the Palestinian people and Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine."

While Vatican diplomats would have winced at a papal endorsement of all those concepts, the Pope had no problem accepting the gift. As he stood up and smiled broadly, a Palestinian placed the scarf around his shoulders, and he wore it during the rest of the program.

The moment drew some of the loudest cheers of the evening.

The Pope had an earlier scarf experience in Jordan, where he was presented by Melkite Catholics with a kaffiyeh, also known in Jordan as a "shmagh," the red-and-white-checked head scarf that in some parts of the Mideast is associated with Hamas and other militant groups.

The photo of the Pope in the "shmagh" landed on the front pages of Jordanian newspapers the next day. A few days later, children greeting the Pope at the Latin patriarchate school in Bethlehem already had that picture on their T-shirts.

[The Pope accepts the scarves for the gifts that they are, it costs him nothing to wear them briefly because that is the gracious thing to do with gift scarves, and no one will fault him for being gracious.

Sure, he knows that in this case, the givers primarily mean to make their point in the world media by getting an image that they can then use as an icon to promote their cause, but no government or international organization will interpret such circumstantial pictures as representative of the Holy See's political position!

On the other hand, the Jordanian scarf in Amman and the Palestinian keffiyeh in the Vatican two weeks ago are simple symbols of nationality.

The Pope would do it for Israelis, too, no doubt. For instance, if not for the fact that he already wears a white skullcap, he would have worn one of the white skullcaps that the Jews provided for his entourage when they visited the Western Wall.]

Benedict rides 'peace train' to Nazareth

At center stage, Benedict held hands
with a rabbi and a Druze sheikh


May 14, 2009

Pope Benedict XVI continued riding what one might call his metaphorical "peace train" in the Middle East today, calling upon followers of different faiths to build bridges and reject hatred – which, the Pope said, "kills men's souls before it kills bodies."

Summing up Benedict's message on his week-long trip, Vatican spokesperson Fr. Federico Lombardi today used three words: "Peace, peace, peace."

[Why should this be 'news'? When the Holy Father first announced this pilgrimage, he said very clearly he was cmoing to pray for peace. The motto he chose for the trip was the beatitude 'Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God'. He has been doing exactly what he came to do.]

Very much in that spirit, this afternoon brought arguably the best visual of the trip. At the close of an inter-faith meeting in Nazareth involving Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Druze, the Pope and leaders of each community stood on stage and held hands while belting out a song specially composed for the occasion: "Salam, Shalom, Lord Grant Us Peace." [You don't and can't belt out a psalm in Jewish musical mode!]

Standing in the center of the stage, Benedict held hands with a rabbi and a Druze sheikh. [Allen obviously missed the interpellated German line, 'Gibt uns Frieden', in the final repetition of the rabbi's psalm.]

This was the pontiff's lone day in Nazareth, described in the New Testament as the hometown of Jesus and his parents, Mary and Joseph. It's located in northern Israel in the Galilee, roughly 70 miles from Jerusalem.

The Pope celebrated an open-air Mass for roughly 40,000 at the "Mount of the Precipice," which tradition regards as the setting of a Biblical scene in which a mob pursued Jesus to the edge of a cliff.

The Pope also visited the grotto in Nazareth where an angel is believed to have appeared to Mary to announce that she was pregnant with Jesus. He took part in an inter-faith session and then celebrated a vespers service in the Basilica of the Annunciation.

Though the day was largely spiritual in tone, it did include one political note: a private meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

This week, Benedict has repeatedly affirmed his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, while the new Netanyahu government has sent ambivalent signals about its commitment to Palestinian statehood.

The meeting took place behind closed doors, and a Vatican spokesperson said afterwards only that the two men had discussed the peace process.

Throughout the day, the Pope's message boiled down to a pitch for peace.

During Mass, the Pontiff averted to Christian-Muslim tensions in Nazareth. Local Muslims want to build a mosque near the Basilica of the Annunciation, on a spot which they believe marks the grave of Shahib al-Di, a nephew of Saladin, the Muslim commander who defeated the Crusaders in 1187.

Protests from Christians, both in Nazareth and around the world, including the U.S. bishops, prompted the Israeli government to halt plans for the mosque in 2002 – a decision that embittered many Muslims.

"Sadly, as the world knows, Nazareth has experienced tensions in recent years which have harmed relations between its Christian and Muslim communities," Benedict said.

"I urge people of good will in both communities to repair the damage that has been done, and in fidelity to our common belief in one God, the Father of the human family, to work to build bridges and find the way to a peaceful coexistence."

"Let everyone reject the destructive power of hatred and prejudice, which kills men's souls before it kills their bodies!" the pope said.

Prior to the Pope's visit, a Muslim group called Ansar Allah, or "Army of God," erected a banner several days ago at the mosque near the Basilica of the Annunciation, which contains an indirect warning to the Pope: "Muhammad is God's messenger who are with him are fierce against infidels."

The banner, however, was not visible from the courtyard of the basilica where this afternoon's events took place.

In his session with religious leaders, the Pope continued the peace theme.

"Our different religious traditions have a powerful potential to promote a culture of peace, especially through teaching and preaching the deeper spiritual values of our common humanity," he said.

"Christians readily join Jews, Muslims, Druze, and people of other religions in wishing to safeguard children from fanaticism and violence while preparing them to be builders of a better world," the Pope said.

The peace song that ended the meeting was composed by Alon Goshen-Gottstein, a Jew who runs an inter-faith center in Jerusalem.

Goshen-Gottstein said he wrote the song only in the last few days, after an ecumenical event in Jerusalem on Monday when an anti-Israeli speech from a Muslim sheikh cast a pall over the event.

Working through local contacts, Goshen-Gottstein said he proposed to the Vatican that the song should be performed at today's event, including the moment when the religious leaders rose and held hands.

"I was tormented and anguished that this opportunity was being wasted," he said immediately after the event. "I told them, you need a visual. There should be a picture to correct what went wrong."

In Nazareth, Benedict also called for unity among Christians. There are thirteen different Christian denominations in the Holy Land, and their relations are notoriously fractious.

Unity, the Pope argued, will allow them to promote "genuine reconciliation between the different peoples who recognize Abraham as their father in faith."

Because Nazareth is the home of the Holy Family, the Pontiff also touched on family life. He underscored "the sacredness of the family, which in God's plan is based on the lifelong fidelity of a man and a woman consecrated by the marriage covenant and accepting of God's gift of new life."

Benedict XVI wraps up his weeklong visit to the Middle East tomorrow. He will take part in an ecumenical meeting with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, as well as visits to the Holy Sepulchre and the Armenian Patriarchal Church of St. James, before returning to Rome in the afternoon.

Deliberately, Benedict plans on departing before the Jewish Sabbath begins. There will thus be no repeat of what happened during John Paul's 2000 visit, when his meeting with [Prime Minister Ehud] Barak took place on a Friday.

Barak was forced to cut the encounter short, since no Israeli politician can afford to be seen violating the Sabbath. An open microphone caught Barak confiding to the Pontiff, "We have to go now … We have to keep our government together!"

For his part, Nazareth Mayor Ramiz Jaraisy proclaimed himself "very satisfied" with the day. During a midday press conference, Jaraisy, a Greek Orthodox Christian, said that city officials had only two months to prepare for the event that would draw the largest crowd on the Pope's entire itinerary, because competition over which site would host the Pontiff delayed a decision until the last minute.

"Fortunately, the right decision was made," Jaraisy said. "After all, he's called 'Jesus of Nazareth,' not any other place." [And the mayor makes an excellent point! I was surprised that there was even any question about Nazareth - except the Israelis' security concerns. I could not imagine the author of JESUS OF NAZARETH going to Nazareth and not saying Mass there. The rival site was Haifa on the Mediterranean coast, which is not linked to Jesus in any way.

It just occurred to me: Suppose the Holy Father had already finished the second volume of JON, would it not be very appropriate if he signed the Preface to it: 'Joseph Ratzinger/Benedictus PP XVI, Nazareth, May 14, 2009'?]

[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 5/17/2009 1:20 AM]