00 5/13/2009 6:25 AM

The Pope's Middle East Tour:
Between the Rock and the Wailing Wall


May 12, 2009

Pope Benedict XVI covered a whole lot of sacred terrain on Tuesday. But even as the Pontiff carried a message of peace and reconciliation to some of the holiest sites of the three monotheistic faiths, the weeklong papal visit to the Middle East risks unraveling under the weight of the region's complicated history and Benedict's continuing struggle to be heard both loudly and clearly.

Under a bright morning sky, Benedict took off his red papal slippers and entered the Dome of the Rock, the 7th century Jerusalem shrine built where Muslim tradition says the Prophet Muhammad began his ascent to heaven.

From there, the Pope followed in John Paul II's footsteps, walking up to place a written prayer in the Western Wall, the remains from the Second Temple (built in the 1st century B.C.) that many say is the historic heart of Judaism.

Later in the afternoon, the German Pontiff led a Mass in the ancient Kidron Valley just outside the Old City of Jerusalem, where some Christians and Jews believe the Final Judgment will take place.

In his encounter at the Dome of the Rock with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Hussein, the Pope said common principles bind Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

"Those who honor the one God believe that he will hold human beings accountable for their actions," Benedict said. "Undivided love for the one God and charity for one's neighbor thus become the fulcrum around which all else turns. This is why we work untiringly to safeguard human hearts from hatred, anger or revenge."

Tuesday's soothing words of unity and sweepingly symbolic itinerary were nevertheless overshadowed in part by the fallout from the German Pope's tumultuous first day in Israel.

On Monday, Benedict's remarks at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial were a disappointment to some Jewish leaders for the lack of any mention of the Nazi perpetrators, expression of remorse or sharing of his own personal recollections of growing up in Bavaria.

"Survivors Angered by Benedict's Lukewarm Speech," was the Page One headline in the Israeli daily Haaretz on Tuesday.

Another encounter on Monday also failed to go according to Vatican plans. An evening ceremony in East Jerusalem to champion inter-religious dialogue was interrupted by an unscheduled diatribe by Palestinian Muslim cleric Sheikh Tasir al-Tamimi, who condemned Israel's attacks on Palestinians and its control over Jerusalem's holy sites.

The diminutive and elderly Pope appeared a bit shaken by the outburst, and the event was cut short as the Vatican delegation quickly left the meeting hall.

Papal spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, who has been working overtime to react to events, called the Muslim cleric's actions a "direct negation of what dialogue should be" and expressed concern that such an incident could threaten to derail Benedict's mission of peace during his eight-day trip.

Lombardi devoted most of his attention at a Tuesday afternoon press conference to defending the Pope's speech at Yad Vashem, which he said was the latest example of the press and public having difficulty accepting the Pope on his own terms.

He said the Pope sought to offer a universal "meditation on memory" and shouldn't be expected "to repeat everything every time" he talks about the Holocaust. "Sometimes he feels he is not well understood," Lombardi said of the Pope.

Still, perhaps as a sign of the growing tension over the trip, Lombardi himself added further misunderstanding. The typically affable Jesuit spokesman blasted media organizations for referring to Joseph Ratzinger's involuntary membership in the Hitler Youth, saying that "never, never, never" did the future Pope take part in the group. {So the good Father did speak mistakenly about our 'Ratzi's' Hitler Youth

It was, however, later verified by reporters in the Pope's own writings when he was a Cardinal - and confirmed by Lombardi - that in fact Benedict had been forced to register in the organization for a brief period.

Unfortunately for the Pope, the present is often as difficult to navigate as the past. On Wednesday he will visit the West Bank city of Bethlehem, where he will both pray at Jesus's birthplace and devote his attention to the Palestinian people and the suffering of their struggle for a homeland under Israeli rule. ['A homeland under Israeli rule'? or 'the struggle...under Israeli rule'?]

Many hope the Pope might inject new hope into the stalled peace process. Others simply pray that his presence doesn't unintentionally make things worse.

[Oh dear! Just when I thought Israely would cross the finish line without any penalties he had to add that last snarky line!]
[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 5/13/2009 11:10 PM]