Pope journeys to Holy Land

Pontiff to lead interfaith meeting

Pilgrimage To The Holyland

March 20, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Pope John Paul II begins an historic pilgrimage to the Holy Land today with a heavy task of soothing the poor in spirit in a region perpetually torn by conflict.

The pontiff's seven-day visit to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories fulfills his longtime dream of praying in the cradle of Christianity 2,000 years after Jesus was born.

But from the moment he lands, Pope John Paul II will face pressures from Christians, Muslims and Jews, all smarting from past and present injustices.

Israel's Jews want him to apologize for the Vatican's silence during the Holocaust, which many view as a manifestation of centuries of prejudice.

Palestinians, overwhelmingly Muslim, want him to bolster their struggle against prolonged Israeli occupation and champion the rights of the dispossessed. And the area's beleaguered Christian minority of Palestinians, Israelis and expatriates wants him to cement their claim to an important presence here.

The pope's schedule is crafted to balance these demands while guiding a global television audience to the shrines marking Christ's birth in Bethlehem, childhood in Nazareth, baptism on the Jordan, years of preaching along the Sea of Galilee and crucifixion, burial and resurrection in Jerusalem.

The sites he will visit include tributes to all who live here: Yad Vashem, the memorial to 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis; the Haram el-Sharif in Jerusalem, a beacon for Muslims worldwide; the Western Wall, the most sacred place to Jews; and finally a Palestinian refugee camp.

"The pope wants his journey to serve the cause of peace and contribute to bringing peace and justice to a region which has still not known either," Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told a news conference Friday.

After visiting Yad Vashem, Pope John Paul II will lead an interfaith meeting with Jewish and Muslim leaders.

"The pontiff thinks that the three monotheistic religions should play a more determining role to establish a just and durable path. They should find in their respective traditions means of playing this role," Navarro-Valls said.

The trip is billed as a "personal pilgrimage," but will draw up to 100,000 followers for a Mass on a high hill overlooking the Mount of Beatitudes and the Galilee, and be laden with symbolism for millions. Although the pope said yesterday his trip was "inspired exclusively by religious reasons," it will be scrutinized for political slight.

"When the pope speaks of a spiritual pilgrimage he will not only come here to make prayers," said the Vatican's ambassador, Pietro Sambi. While he will not be drawn into politics, he will work to create a consciousness whereby "something new can come out.

"The pope will strongly insist on the principle of justice," he said.

Specially outfitted Blackhawk helicopters and an armored jeep -- dubbed the "Holy Roller" by one newspaper -- will carry the frail 79-year-old pontiff, who has survived an assassination attempt and suffers from Parkinson's disease.

Jewish extremists have injected an ugly note into Israel's welcome for the pope. They scrawled graffiti on walls denouncing him as evil, drew a swastika on his helipad with the words, "Where were you during the Holocaust," and carried placards saying, "Pagan worship out."

Police went to court to shrink a planned anti-pope demonstration on his route into Jerusalem's Old City.

Jewish leaders have denounced such signs of hatred, and will join a large crowd at the pope's arrival from Jordan tomorrow. One ultra-Orthodox man approached a government official at a synagogue recently to plead for a ticket to the pope's largest Mass.

Pope John Paul II refers to Jews as Christians' elder brothers, and Israel's chief Ashkenazi Rabbi, Meir Lau, is one of many who credit him with helping to transform ties between the two faiths.

Lau recalls a 1993 visit to the pope's summer residence outside Rome, where the two men shared memories of their native Poland, the country that witnessed some of the worst Nazi atrocities.

The pope, who knew Lau's grandfather, asked how many of his 47 grandchildren had survived.

"I said, only five," Lau related. "He looked at the ceiling and after a while he said, `I always say that all of us are committed to the future and the continuity of our senior brothers, the Jewish people.' "

But Lau was among the first to voice disappointment last week after the pope, in an unprecedented apology for past wrongs committed by Catholics, omitted the Church's failure to denounce the Holocaust during World War II.

"I do believe that he will complete it this Thursday at Yad Vashem," Lau said. He also sees a contradiction between the pope's message of reconciliation and the move to beatify the World War II-era pope, Pius XII.

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