Pope Arrives to Mend Fences in the Middle East

Benedict's visit could smooth relations or prolong mistrust between faiths.

JERUSALEM, May 8, 2009 — -- The pope mobile has been spotted out and about in Jerusalem, dress rehearsing for a papal Mass near the garden of Gethsemane. Organizers have been putting up flags and cleaning up the Old City walls in preparation for Pope Benedict's arrival this weekend.

Jordan is the first stop today, then followed by Israel and the Palestinian territories -- a complex landscape of political and religious differences of opinion, to put it mildly. Many are calling the papal visit a tight-rope walk. He has said he is coming as a "pilgrim of peace."

Jordan will be the pope's first Arab visit, and his second visit to a predominantly Muslim nation. It is billed as a chance to improve relations between the Catholic Church and Islam; there's still a need for damage control after Benedict's controversial 2006 speech in Regensberg, Germany, where he quoted a historical figure with negative things to say about the prophet Mohammed.

The Vatican tried to limit the damage but some, including Jordan's branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, are demanding a more explicit apology. The pope's speeches and meetings with Islamic clerics and scholars will be a chance to mend fences, if he gets it right, or to prolong the mistrust, if he gets it wrong.

So, too, are his meetings with rabbis in Israel. Relations with Judaism and Israel haven't always been great of late. The pope has put a lot of effort into smoothing relations but there are some major problems.

Pope Benedict will visit Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and Museum Monday afternoon in one of the most important and potentially sensitive visits on his busy schedule.

The relationship between the Catholic church and the Jewish people, in the particular context of the Holocaust, is fraught with difficulties.

The pope didn't help matters earlier this year when he reversed a ban on a British bishop who turned out to be a Holocaust denier. Few believe the pope intended any offence but it was widely seen as a clumsy and avoidable mistake.

Pope to Visit Wailing Wall but Not Gaza

Pope Pius XII's apparent war-time silence as Europe's Jews were hunted down and exterminated is also an irritant that won't go away. Researchers at Yad Vashem want to know what really happened and have been frustrated by the Vatican's unwillingness to open its archives to outside research.

"We want to find the truth and we are studying, researching and we are looking for it," Yad Vashem Director Avner Shalem said this week. "We have no other agendas."

He will greet the pope in the Hall of Remembrance, where he will also meet six Holocaust survivors.

In addition to visiting the Islamic shrine on Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock, the pope will also pray at The Wailing Wall -- both highly symbolic places to make the point about inter-faith understanding and tolerance.

Preparations are also underway for the pope's visit to Nazareth, Israel's biggest Arab City. He will visit the Church of the Annunciation and hold an outdoor mass.

Israel's security services are a little nervous about the day, as it coincides with what the Palestinians call the "catastrophe," the day Israel declared its independence. A day when nationalist grievances are most keenly felt.

New Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu will also be in Nazareth to greet His Holiness.

In Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem, the dwindling numbers of Arab Christians -- some call it an exodus -- will be on the pope's agenda as, of course, will be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is an unavoidable subject and Benedict has already said he is coming with messages of peace and justice, but every word he utters about the need for the two-state solution will be minutely scrutinized by Palestinians and the new right-wing Israeli government.

He will also visit a Palestinian refugee camp in the shadow of Israel's much-hated security barrier. It is a high concrete wall here and the symbolism will be too obvious to ignore.

There's no plan to go to Gaza, with memories of the fighting earlier this year and the loss of civilian life still fresh in the mind. Gaza's several thousand strong Christian community is the region's smallest and most vulnerable, occasionally under attack from Islamic extremists. Israel may give out 250 travel permits for Gaza's Christians to attend mass with the pope, but it hasn't happened yet.

There are many challenges facing the 82-year-old pope; this is his first trip to the Holy Land as pope, and almost certainly his last. He doesn't have the rock star qualities of his predecessor John Paul, who was a big hit here in 2000.

This is a minefield of sensitivities and for a pope with a habit of saying the wrong thing, leaving without causing a controversy may be enough of an achievement.

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