00 5/8/2009 8:07 AM

Kasper outlines Pope Benedict’s
‘political’ mission to the Holy Land

by Christa Pongratz-Lippitt and Abigail Frymann

Issue of 25 April 2009

The political aspect of Pope Benedict's coming visit to the Holy Land is of prime importance, according to Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and head of the Vatican commission for relations with Jews.

The cardinal will accompany the Pope on the 8-15 May visit, said this was because conflict in the region is the "mother of many other conflicts in the world today".

Interviewed by the German Catholic Press Agency last week, the cardinal said the Holy Land visit would be "quite different" from Pope Benedict's other visits abroad to date and he expected it to be one of the most difficult.

"Both the political and the church situation in the Middle East are anything but easy. A balance will have to found between the Pope's encounter with Israel and the Jews on the one hand, and with the Christians, who for the most part live in the Palestinian territories, on the other. A difficult task - but all the more necessary for that," he said.

Thorough preparation was a must, he insisted, and the groundwork was in full process. "We affirm the state of Israel and maintain diplomatic relations with it, and our relationship with the Jews has improved enormously. On the other hand we must do justice to the Palestinian Christians, who do not have an easy life. The Holy See is in favour of a two-state solution but that does not seem so important to the Israeli Government at the moment. The diplomatic high-wire act will therefore be not to accept any false compromises," Cardinal Kasper emphasised.

The Pope's visit had several aims, he said. One was to stabilise relations with the Jews after the difficulties that had arisen of late. Recent papal overtures to the Lefebvrists and Pope Benedict's revised Good Friday prayer issued last year have all caused concern among Jews.

Relations with Islam also needed to be stabilised, Cardinal Kasper said. The Pope would be visiting a mosque in Jordan and would also meet Muslims in Jerusalem. Dialogue has been established since the Pope gave his controversial Regensburg lecture in September 2006, but tensions still exist.

Ecumenical relations were also important, Cardinal Kasper said, as the Pope would encounter practically all the separated Christian denominations in Jerusalem.

"And the Pope will on no account forget Catholic Christians. He will be meeting them in Bethlehem - which is more or less walled-in today, and saying Mass in Nazareth," he added.

Asked what he expected from the visit as far as the Church's relationship with Judaism was concerned, Cardinal Kasper said that as the Vatican had "good personal contacts", it had been "relatively easy" to iron out the recent difficulties within one or two weeks and to "calm things down", which proved that Catholic-Jewish relations were stable.

"There is great interest on the Jewish side, not only among politicians, but also on the part of Orthodox Jews, to meet the Pope and put relations on a stable track permanently," he said.

Cardinal Kasper was asked whether ecumenical relations were not as important on this visit as inter-religious and political relations. "The other Christian Churches all have the same difficulties such as getting visas for their priests, and they expect help from the Catholic Church as it has diplomatic channels at its disposal," he said. Christians in the Holy Land were in a difficult situation, the cardinal said.

They are Arabs, not Israelis or Muslims and therefore have identity problems, especially the young, and many emigrate as they see no future for themselves in the Holy Land. "That is a great loss for all of us. When we come to the Holy Land we don't only want to see dead stones but Christian communities that are alive and thriving," he affirmed.

In Jordan, a leading Muslim scholar and one of the signatories to the "Common Word" document from Muslims inviting Christians to dialogue said Jordanian Muslims were looking for the Pope to speak out on the Middle East and Iraq, as well as Muslim-Christian relations.

Speaking in Amman on Tuesday Dr Hamdi Murad told The Tablet that it was important for the Pope to show he is interested in relations between the two faiths becoming closer and "more sincere".

"Scholars and ordinary Muslims alike want to hear something more open-hearted, open-spirited, to understand that the highest figure in Christianity has opened his heart to see Muslims as his brothers," he said.