Pope enters 'blessed land' of Israel

Praising openness, he calls for courage in removing prejudice

March 22, 2000|By Mark Matthews and John Rivera | Mark Matthews and John Rivera,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Pope John Paul II, opening a historic trip to Israel yesterday, saluted a "newfound openness" between Christians and Jews and called for members of both faiths to make "courageous efforts" to end prejudice.

On the second leg of his trip to the Holy Land, the pope emphasized breaking from past strains between the Vatican and Israel, and overcoming historic bitter divisions between Catholics and Jews.

He arrived after a chaotic day in Jordan that included a Mass in the capital, Amman, and a visit to a site where John the Baptist may have baptized Jesus.

Pope John Paul's visit to Israel is among the most delicate and challenging of his many travels, bringing him close to people of three religions, to a bitter conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, to apprehension among many Jews derived from a history of persecution and to a shrinking and beleaguered Christian minority in the cradle of his own faith.

Landing at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, he alluded to those challenges, and his itinerary is designed to address each one. But after slowly descending the steps of his aircraft, he made a point of establishing contact with Israel and the Jewish people. His speech ended with "Shalom," the Hebrew greeting and word for peace.

"Yesterday, from the heights of Mount Nebo, I looked across the Jordan valley to this blessed land," he said, referring to his visit to the mountaintop where tradition says Moses saw the Promised Land.

"Today, it is with profound emotion that I set foot in the land where God chose to 'pitch his tent' and made it possible for man to encounter him more directly," the pope said, drawing from passages in the Old and New Testaments.

He said God "wants us to honor him in spirit and in truth, to acknowledge the difference between us, but also to recognize in every human being the image and likeness of the one creator."

Israel has unpleasant memories of its first papal visit, by Pope Paul VI in 1964, long before the Vatican officially recognized the Jewish state. He is reported to have never mentioned Israel's name.

Yesterday, addressing President Ezer Weizman, Pope John Paul said, "I thank you for your warm welcome, and in your person I greet all the people of the state of Israel."

He said that "many things have changed" since Pope Paul visited. The opening of diplomatic ties in 1994 "set a seal on efforts to open an era of dialogue on questions of common interest concerning religious freedom, relations between church and state, and, more generally, relations between Christians and Jews."

But he noted that erasing bitter misunderstanding was a two-way street. "With newfound openness toward one another, Christians and Jews together must make courageous efforts to remove all forms of prejudice."

Touching on the Arab-Israeli conflict, he spoke of the urgent need for peace and justice, "not for

Israel alone but for the entire region," noting that the people of the Holy Land do not have either. His twinning of peace and justice was an acknowledgment of Palestinian demands for an end to Israeli occupation.

The pope, who no longer stoops to kiss the ground on his travels, kissed a bowl of Israeli soil handed to him by three children, one Jewish, one Muslim and one Christian.

His pilgrimage, he said, is a tribute to the three religious traditions that coexist in Israel. He also said he looked forward to meeting the Catholic faithful "in their rich variety" and other Christians, who together represent 2 percent of the population.

The pope arrived in a hazy dusk on a Royal Jordanian Airlines jet carrying, near the cockpit, the Israeli and Vatican flags. He was greeted with a pomp and warmth that conveyed the delight and pride of many Israelis at his visit.

Beforehand, a long line of Israeli Cabinet ministers and Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious leaders waited under umbrellas in the rain, which cleared as the pope arrived. Greeting him one by one at the end of the opening ceremony, government ministers and the speaker of the Knesset walked away visibly pleased.

The pope, frail and slow, with trembling hands and a slurred voice, seemed barely able to muster the strength to respond in kind. His expression barely changed, and his head remained bowed throughout the ceremony.

Weizman, in his welcoming remarks, said Israel has always stretched out its hands in peace to its Arab neighbors and portrayed the Jewish state as one where all religions enjoy freedom of worship and access to holy places.

Political theme

Although Israeli officials had stressed that the pope did not want politics to intrude on the visit, they used the occasion to reiter

ate their claim that Jerusalem is the undividded capital of Israel. The Vatican, like much of the world, doesn't accept this position.

Weizman spoke of Jerusalem as reunified, "the capital and source of pride of the state of Israel."

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