Kevin Frayer/AP
Pope Benedict XVI, center, leads a mass in the Kidron Valley, outside Jerusalem's Old City.

As Expected, Pope Benedict XVI’s Visit to Israel Marked by Tension

May 12, 2009 07:00 PM
by Rachel Balik
Pope Benedict has arrived in Israel for a long-anticipated visit. Opinions differ as to whether he is fostering peace or creating fresh conflict.

The Holocaust and Palestine: Difficult Issues for the Pope in Israel

On May 11, Pope Benedict XVI traveled from Jordan to Israel for what U.K. paper The Daily Telegraph has said is the most “controversial” portion of his Middle Eastern tour. He visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial but he did not enter the museum, which displays a photo of Pope Pius XII with a caption criticizing his inactivity during the Holocaust.

Pope Pius XII has long been vilified for his alleged failure to come to the aid of Jews in the Holocaust. Voice of America reports that U.S. military intelligence had information that the Vatican actually was helping to save Jews and after the war, many prominent Jews actually came forward to thank the Vatican for its assistance. The Catholic Church now acknowledges that the Holocaust could not have happened if anti-Semitism hadn’t been so prevalent among Christians; however, they have not publicized their new stance and Jewish-Catholic relations remain somewhat tense.

The National Catholic Reporter noted that the pope has previously written about the connection between Christian anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, but did not raise the point at Yad Vashem, which might perturb some observers. Yet some prominent rabbis told NCR that while they were not entirely satisfied, at least the pope had visited Yad Vashem and had come down explicitly against anti-Semitism during a speech at the airport.

The pope’s goal for the Middle Eastern tour is to foster unity among the Catholic Church, Jews and Muslims. He has caused some tension in Israel by his advocacy for a Palestinian state, however. The Associated Press reported that whomever he might have appeased with his words of remembrance about the Holocaust Memorial would be equally alarmed by his support of Palestinians. For their part, Palestinians were upset that “the pope met the family of the captive Israeli soldier, but would not meet with relatives of any of the 11,000 Palestinian prisoners imprisoned in Israel.”

Sheik Taysir Tamimi, the chief justice of the Palestinian Islamic courts, contributed to the strain raised by this issue; during an interfaith meeting, he asked Muslims and Christians to unite against Israel and specifically asked the Pope to “pressure” Israel to stop attacking Palestine. According to The New York Times, “the Vatican immediately condemned Sheik Tamimi’s remarks.”

Background: The pope’s stances on Palestine and the Holocaust

Last year, when the pope made his first visit to the United States, relations between Israel and Palestine were already a focus. Writing for the Council on Foreign Relations, researcher Timothy Samuel Shah said that pope’s main concern is for the Christians in Palestine. Because there are more Christians in Palestinian territories than in Israel, the pope is predisposed to lean his support towards protecting Palestinians and his own “flock.”  He also made a notable effort to visit with Jews in America, however.

In January, the pope faced controversy when he decided to reinstate four excommunicated bishops, one of whom, Bishop Richard Williamson, was a Holocaust denier. Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial (where the pope gave his May 11 speech) and the Simon Wiesenthal Center spoke out against the Pope’s decision. PBS NewsHour reports that in addition, the reinstatement caused the “top religious authority” in Israel to “seve[r] ties with the Vatican and cance[l] an upcoming visit to Rome.” Commentators for NewsHour suggested at the time that the May trip would give Benedict the opportunity to repair relations.

Other leaders of the Catholic Church were also displeased with Bishop Williamson’s reinstatement. Cardinal Walter Kasper, the director of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said he was not consulted, and one priest said the pope was out of touch with the real world.

Related Topic: Pope John Paul II in Israel

The Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs has reprinted a series of news excerpts from when Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, visited Israel in 2000. In one such piece, Abraham Rabinovich of the Jerusalem Post said that after 2000 years of animosity, Christian-Jewish relations were significantly altered and tensions relaxed by the pope’s visit.

When he visited the Holocaust Memorial, although he did not formally apologize, Jews were “moved to tears” by Pope John Paul II’s words, the History Place reports. He said, “We wish to remember. But we wish to remember for a purpose, namely to ensure that never again will evil prevail, as it did for the millions of innocent victims of Nazism.”

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