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VATICAN CITY (RNS) It sounds a little far-fetched and for some purists perhaps unthinkable: A pope, a rabbi and a sheik decide to travel to the Holy Land and follow in the steps of Jesus.

Drawing of the marketplace in Bethlehem Holy Land (i.e. West Bank).

Drawing of the marketplace in Bethlehem Holy Land (i.e. West Bank). Photo courtesy of Snapshots Of The Past, via Wikimedia Commons


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But that is just one of the groundbreaking aspects of Pope Francis’ three-day visit to the Middle East that starts on Saturday (May 24), a visit in which he hopes to shore up interfaith dialogue, strengthen diplomatic relations and find new ways to build peace.

The Argentina-born pope will be accompanied by colleagues Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Sheik Omar Abboud, both from Buenos Aires. It is the first time a pope’s official delegation has included members of other faiths on an overseas trip.

But Francis’ trip to Jordan, the West Bank and Israel has already been overshadowed by controversy over plans to celebrate Mass in a location revered by Orthodox Jews. Religious extremists were blamed for spray painting the walls of churches and monasteries in Israel with vitriolic graffiti that included “Death to Christians” and “We will crucify you.”

“Death to Arabs, Christians and all those who hate Israel”, was tagged on May 5, 2014, on a column in front of the Office of the Assembly of Bishops, Notre Dame of Jerusalem.

“Death to Arabs, Christians and all those who hate Israel” was tagged on May 5, 2014, on a column in front of the Office of the Assembly of Bishops, Notre Dame of Jerusalem. Photo courtesy of Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem


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The attacks were roundly condemned by Catholics and Jews. Zion Evrony, Israel’s ambassador to the Holy See, immediately responded by describing Francis as “a friend of the Jewish people” and stressing that the attacks were isolated.

“They were condemned by political and religious leaders,” Evrony said. “They do not represent the policy of the government or the opinions or sentiments of the majority of Israelis. Israel respects and protects religious freedoms.”

To be sure, in a region wracked by centuries of political and religious conflict, there are plenty of challenges.

The Rev. David Neuhaus from the St. James Vicariate for Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel said the pope is sending a powerful message not only about dialogue and collaboration, but “sharing dreams.”

“These possibilities need to be underlined for those of us in the Middle East who are so used to the present realities of fighting, bad-mouthing, competition and negativity,” Neuhaus said from Jerusalem.

Skorka is rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary, and Abboud is president of the Institute for Interreligious Dialogue in Buenos Aires. Francis knows both men from his days as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires.

“Francis’ friendship with Skorka and Abboud will hopefully raise questions about our assumptions and allow us to imagine a world where different relations can be born,” Neuhaus said.

This is only the pope’s second foreign trip since he assumed office in 2013 — following his highly successful visit to Brazil last summer — and it is certain to present the greatest test of his political and personal leadership to date.

 John Paul II places a prayer expressing remorse for past treatment of Jews in the Western Wall in Jerusalem during a trip to Israel in 2000. Religion News Service file photo

John Paul II places a prayer expressing remorse for past treatment of Jews in the Western Wall in Jerusalem during a trip to Israel in 2000. Religion News Service file photo


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When Pope  John Paul II visited Israel in 2000, he prayed at the Western Wall and apologized to the Jews. Pope Benedict XVI provoked fury in 2009 when he remembered the “millions” killed during the Holocaust without specifying the precise number of 6 million Jewish victims on a visit to the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem.

Francis has already stressed the “strictly religious” importance of this trip, which marks the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and the spiritual leader of Eastern Orthodoxy, Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagorus.

That 1964 visit was the first step in overcoming 1,000 years of bitter conflict between the two oldest branches of Christianity, although the two churches are not yet in full communion with each other.

Francis is scheduled to meet with the current Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, who represents 230 million Orthodox Christians, on four occasions during this trip. The two men will sign a joint declaration despite opposition from some Orthodox leaders.

“It’s clear that this visit cannot resolve all the problems of the dialogue of truth, but it will deepen the friendship and the brotherhood, the fraternal relations,” Cardinal Kurt Koch, who heads the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, told Vatican Radio.

The three-day visit is packed with official appointments and a grueling physical schedule for the 77-year-old pontiff.

In Jordan, he will meet with King Abdullah II and Queen Rania and celebrate Mass in a stadium in Amman where 1,400 children will receive Communion for the first time. In Bethlehem, a meeting is scheduled with the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, and refugee children.

A panoramic view of the Cenacle in Jerusalem.

A panoramic view of the Cenacle in Jerusalem Photo courtesy of Assaf Yekuel, via Wikimedia Commons


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The pope’s plan to celebrate Mass in the Cenacle, the room where Christ is believed to have celebrated the Last Supper, angered Orthodox Jews, who also revere the site as the tomb of King David. Some Palestinian officials had hoped the pope would use his trip to Bethlehem to recognize Palestine.

But that seems highly unlikely after it was revealed that Francis would visit the tomb of Zionist pioneer Theodor Herzl, seen by many as a gesture apologizing for the Vatican’s initial opposition to Jewish self-determination.

When he flies to Israel, Francis will meet with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as local rabbis. Like his predecessors, Francis will visit the Western Wall and Yad Vashem.

It’s clear that the pope has the power and popularity to set a new tone in the Middle East, but one veteran Vatican watcher has already warned that may not be enough to bring about real change.

“The pope has shown himself to be an extraordinary leader, but he is not a miracle worker,” said the Rev. Tom Reese, a well-known Jesuit author and analyst in Washington. “The pope constantly surprises us, leads us to hope, but experience warns us to be realistic.”

KRE/MG END McKENNA

 

9 Comments

  1. I wish the Holy Father success, or at least, some eye-opening experiences. Given his usual courage in speaking out against injustice, I believe he will officially condemn Israel’s racist apartheid system and its land theft tactics. Of course, this truth telling will cause our federal government to have a (holy) cow.

    • What concerns me, and needs to change is the Christian apology tour to the jews. It’s absolutely ridiculous that the Pope prays at the remnant of the Roman Fort Antonia, simply because the jews pretend it’s a part of the old Temple that was destroyed.

      The Church has gone too far in it’s efforts to appease the jews, to hell with them. We owe them NOTHING, and I am bothered greatly that our Pontiff has to bow to them on his tour. The Church needs to make a principled stand against them, their ethnic tribal racism, slow genocide, and their apartheid of the indigenous Palestinians. It’s unbelievable that the Church does this, we need a return to the Pope’s who had principles and stood for them. Israel is an abomination, period.

      • God forgive you for your hateful and anti-Semitic views, Dedicated. I presume you have a problem with Jesus, too, who was Jewish. I note your tendency to talk about the Jewish people with a small ‘j’ — jews — which shows your lamentable and hateful approach to them. How dare you decide what the Church and Pope Francis should do. You have a nerve.

  2. If the alliance of Christians and Jews can come to reality by this visit of the Pope,then I’m looking forward to the alliance of Catholics, Protestants, orthodox alike.
    When will Biblical differences be put aside and and promote ‘Peace’
    When will Biblical Truths be put aside and uphold one common tradition ‘Promote Peace’
    When will Christians alike submit both political and religious powers to the pope.

  3. A time for the Sermon on the Mount. Love your enemies. What could be a greater lesson. Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. Not by words but by love, especially one’s enemies.

    “But I say to you, love your enemies and bless the one who curses you, and do what is beautiful to the one who hates you, and pray over those who take you by force and persecute you.”

  4. There is nothing positive to be achieved by just staunchly condemning the ‘other’. And extending the hand of goodwill and friendship as a step amongst many by all involved to reconciliation, does not mean a change to ones principled position. Nor should it automatically be interpreted as appeasement. The track record of Pope Francis in making such magnanimous gestures has to date been exemplary. I wish him every success in this endeavour.

    “It sounds a little far-fetched ….A pope, a rabbi and a sheik decide to travel to the Holy Land”

    It sounds like a joke. I’m glad it isn’t.

  5. John Stefanyszyn

    Jorge Bergoglio (“Pope Francis”) is going to the Holy Land in the name of reconciliation between the Catholics, the Jews, the Muslims, and the Eastern Orthodox….a reconciliation of common ground and common values.

    A reconciliation which is rooted in the belief of freedom of rights, freedom of religion, freedom of all religions and personal beliefs.

    And this FREEDOM dictates that it is RIGHT (a right) to be free to worship ANY ‘god’.

    But it is commanded that one will worship Only the One Creator…and none other …for there is no other.
    ….and the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of this Only Creator God, said that we are to worship the One Lord God and Him Alone, His Will Alone to serve in obedience and love.

    Even in view of these straightforward words, Jorge Bergoglio desires to find reconciliation among the different “religions” , some of which deny Jesus Christ as the Son of the One God and Only Savior and all of which , including the RCC, that deny the Preeminence of YWHW as the Only Creator, whose identity is defined by His Son Jesus Christ.

    It is clear what Jorge Bergoglio and others are reconciling themselves to…to the image of FREEDOM of self-rights, self-religion.
    …the same FREEDOM that President Obama confessed to be the “light” and “righteousness” of man and the “will” of the “common” ‘god’ of the Christians, the Jews, and the Muslims.

    The return of the Lord Jesus Christ is soon, and He will rule the earth in power according to and in obedience to the Will of YWHW and NOT according to man’s first love for “his freedom”.

    John Stefanyszyn

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