Tepid reception expected for Pope Benedict in Israel

McClatchy NewspapersMay 7, 2009 

JERUSALEM — When Pope Benedict XVI arrives in the Middle East this weekend for his first visit as head of the Roman Catholic church, he will be met by crowds, signs and banners — and not all of them will be welcoming.

Muslim activists have hoisted a critical banner in Nazareth warning of "humiliating punishment" for anyone who insults the Prophet Mohammed, recalling the pope's stark criticism of Islam three years ago.

A dwindling Palestinian Christian population in Bethlehem wants Benedict to use Israel's towering concrete separation wall as a backdrop for an appearance at which they want him to challenge Israeli policies they see as hurdles to peace.

And wary Jewish leaders will be watching the German-born pope, whose bungled embrace of an excommunicated, Holocaust-denying bishop resurrected a longstanding dispute over the Vatican's role during World War II.

Benedict's eight-day visit, which begins with a stop Friday in Amman, Jordan, will serve as one of the biggest tests of his ability as pope to deal with 2,000 years of volatile, divisive and often-deadly religious relations.

"We have created among us, all three sons of Abraham, a ferocious enemy," said Oded Ben-Hur, a former Israeli ambassador to the Vatican. "The name of this enemy is an abyss of ignorance. We don't know each other, and this is the mother of all problems."

One of the first issues Benedict will face when he arrives in Israel Monday will be a display at Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust museum that the Vatican has gone to great lengths to make sure the pope will not see.

The display, featuring a photo of Pope Pius XII, says the Nazi-era pope "did not protest" the Holocaust, "even when reports about the murder of Jews reached the Vatican."

Under a photo of Pius is a poem: "While the ovens were fed day-and-night, the most Holy Father did not leave his palace, with crucifix high to witness one day of pogrom."

The display is an unresolved source of tension between Israel and the Vatican, which established full diplomatic relations in 1994.

Benedict, whose cardinals are still weighing whether to declare Pius XII a saint, has said that the wartime pope "spared no effort" to help Jews escape Hitler.

At one point last year, a Vatican cardinal said that Benedict wouldn't visit Israel until the language about Pius was changed.

Benedict will pay his respects to Holocaust victims at the Yad Vashem memorial. He will not, however, visit the museum — a decision also taken by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

Benedict three months ago lifted the excommunication of a clergyman, Richard Williamson, who'd denied the worst horrors of the Holocaust. Benedict initially resisted calls to rescind the decision, even though Williamson refused to recant his views.

After weathering the storm, Benedict last month conceded that he'd made mistakes in handling the case and should've known about Williamson's statements.

Skepticism of Benedict's Holocaust views is also colored by the pope's own personal history: As a teenage boy in Nazi Germany, Benedict was compelled to become a member of the Nazi Youth at age 14 in 1941 and was drafted by Hilter's army two years later.

Whereas the Polish-born John Paul was seen as a pioneer in religious reconciliation, Benedict is seen as having created more religious friction.

A year after becoming pope, Benedict alienated many Muslims with a 2006 speech in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor who said the prophet Mohammed had brought nothing but evil to the world.

Benedict later said he was "deeply sorry" and distanced himself from the emperor's views. For some Muslims, however, it wasn't enough.

Zahi Nujeidat, a spokesman for the Islamic Movement, said the group will boycott Benedict's visit. At the same time, they urged him to visit the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, which has barely recovered from Israel's recent military offensive.

"For someone who is so sensitive to the Holocaust, what is happening in Gaza is no less than a holocaust — it is the genocide of the 21st century and he should acknowledge it with a visit of an hour or hour and a half," Nujeidat said.

Benedict won't visit Gaza, which one of his cardinals called a "big concentration camp" during the recent military operation, infuriating Israeli leaders. Instead, Benedict will travel to Bethlehem, where Palestinian leaders have built a stage below a snaking section of Israel's concrete separation wall running alongside Aida Refugee Camp.

Palestinian leaders are hoping that Benedict will use the platform to issue a strong defense of Palestinian rights. Israel, however, has demanded that Palestinian construction workers stop building the stage, which it considers a security threat.

(Churgin is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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