JERUSALEM — When Pope Benedict XVI touches down in Jordan on Friday (May 8) for a week-long tour of the Holy Land, he will encounter a very different Middle East and Christian community than the ones that greeted Pope John Paul II in 2000.
The pilgrimage will take Benedict to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, where he will visit sites holy to Christians, Jews and Muslims, celebrate Mass and meet with top government and religious officials.
While local tourism boards are promoting the visit as a sign of hope and reconciliation, Benedict is aware of the religious, ethnic and political tensions that often lead to violence, church leaders say.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, Benedict’s point man on interfaith matters, told German reporters last week the Holy Land pilgrimage will be “quite different” from other trips the pope has taken since his election four years ago.
“Both the political and the church situation in the Middle East are anything but easy,” Kasper said. “A balance will have to found between the pope’s encounter with Israel and the Jews on the one hand, and with the Christians, who for the most part live in the Palestinian territories, on the other. A difficult task — but all the more necessary for that.”
It will also be a marked contrast with John Paul’s much-heralded Jubilee Year pilgrimage, which attracted throngs of pilgrims and bubbled with a sense of joyful expectation and peaceful possibilities.
Since then, the region has experienced the second Palestinian uprising, a war between Israel and Lebanon and, last winter, intense fighting between Israelis and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
“Back then, the Palestinian Authority was functioning better and people were a bit more hopeful for the future,” said Nidal Abuzuluf, a Roman Catholic from the Palestinian village of Beit Sahour, who coordinates the Network of Christian Organizations in Bethlehem.
“Nowadays the signs of political progress are absent and people are more pessimistic.”
And compared with John Paul’s success at building bridges with other faiths, especially Judaism, his successor has angered both Jews and Muslims with statements and actions that caused some to doubt his commitment to continuing the interfaith dialogue championed by John Paul.
The intermittent violence has lowered morale everywhere, but especially in the West Bank and Gaza, which is home to roughly 40 percent of the region’s tiny Christian minority.
This, coupled with the Israeli security barrier that has prevented terror attacks but walled Palestinians into the economically-depressed West Bank, has accelerated the emigration of Christians and decimated the community.
“Christians are a minority, and minorities suffer more during difficult times,” Monsignor Antonio Franco, the Vatican ambassador to Israel, said in a recent pre-pilgrimage briefing. “Those who can try to look for a better future for their children, and they are looking at Christian communities elsewhere. We see it happening throughout the Middle East.”
To highlight their suffering, Palestinian construction workers erected the stage from which Benedict will address residents of the al-Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem, within plain sight of the towering cement separation barrier. Israeli authorities, meanwhile, are demanding that the stage be relocated to a more neutral site.
Tensions also await Benedict in the predominantly Muslim northern Israeli city of Nazareth, the home of Jesus’ youth, where the pope will lead a Mass. Some are calling on the region’s Arabs to boycott the papal visit to protest Benedict’s 2006 reference to a Medieval Christian text that referred to Islam as “evil and inhuman” and “spread by sword.”
In Nazareth, a group of fundamentalist Muslims have hung a banner, quoting from the Quran, that says, “Those who harm God and His Messenger, God has cursed them in this life and in the afterlife, and has promised them punishment.”
Benedict could also face hostility from Jews who are still angry over his decision to lift the excommunication of a schismatic bishop who has questioned the Holocaust, and by remarks by Vatican Cardinal Renato Martino that likened the life in the Gaza Strip to a big concentration camp.
While it is easy to focus on potential controversies, Rabbi David Rosen, the Jerusalem-based director of the American Jewish Committee’s department of interreligious affairs, said the interfaith tensions have prompted high-level discussions that might otherwise not occurred.
Last month, Benedict received a delegation from Israel’s Chief Rabbinate to forcefully repudiate anti-Semitism, Rosen noted. Last November, Benedict held a three-day summit at the Vatican to help patch relations with Muslim leaders.
“When Pope John Paul II visited in 2000, he didn’t know most the people he met with here and there was a great deal more suspicion, on the part of Jewish and Muslim clergy,” Rose said. “Pope Benedict will be meeting the Chief rabbis, the Mufti of Jerusalem and many others he already knows and respects.”