Pope ends pilgrimage embracing 3 faiths

Israelis see breakthrough in Christian relations

March 27, 2000|By Mark Matthews and John Rivera | Mark Matthews and John Rivera,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Pope John Paul II left the Holy Land last night after a seven-day pilgrimage that left Israelis, Palestinians and local Christians feeling somehow uplifted and comforted.

On his last day, the pope went to Jerusalem's most sacred Jewish and Muslim shrines -- the Western Wall and the Haram esh Sharif -- before leading a Mass keyed to the Resurrection at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Then, in a final act of Christian homage, he returned in the afternoon to the church, where he knelt at the Golgotha altar and bent down toward the rock where Jesus is believed to have been crucified.

For Israelis, the pope's visit marked a cathartic breakthrough in relations between Jews and Christians.

"I believe that this visit brings to an end the era of conflict, the era of dispute, the era of war between Christianity and Judaism" said Haim Ramon, Israeli minister without portfolio. That era, he said, had been marked by discrimination, deportation, killing and torture. "I think that the Jewish people cannot ask more of this great Pope John Paul II."

The pope's visit to the Western Wall, where Jews have worshiped for centuries, was the final gesture of reconciliation.

As deeply religious Jews in prayer shawls worshiped nearby in a barricaded section, the pope slowly approached the 2,000-year- old structure, leaned forward and said a prayer that he first uttered at a Vatican Mass on March 12.

"God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations. We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the covenant."

He signed a copy of the prayer Joannes Paulus II. Then, following the Jewish custom of placing messages to God in the wall, he left the prayer on the wall. The page has been given to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

Faisal Husseini, the top Palestinian official in Jerusalem, said the pope had "materialized the humanity and the courage" of Palestinians. Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian leader, said the pope had left a "very clear" message demanding an end to Palestinian suffering, and affirming their right to a homeland and a "just peace" under international law.

For Christians, the pope's spiritual tour gave unprecedented exposure not only to holy sites but to the proud but dwindling community of Palestinian Christians, who count themselves as descendants of the earliest disciples.

"He was very clear in giving a message of hope to strengthen the faith of people living around the holy places," said the Rev. Raed Abusahlia, chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate. "We are aware that we are the living stones. We don't want the holy places to become museums."

But the visit was haunted as well by the politics of this bitterly divided land, raising doubts whether the pope's repeated message of reconciliation will sink in.

Pope John Paul's final day in Jerusalem's Old City brought Palestinian complaints that Israeli authorities were restricting Arabs' access to the pope and using the visit to reinforce Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem.

Israel blocked Palestinian public figures, including Ashrawi, from attending the Holy Sepulcher Mass, saying they wanted to be there as hosts, not worshipers.

The pope's visit to Haram esh Sharif, site of the gold-crowned octagonal Dome of the Rock, which dates to the seventh century, and the majestic 12th-century Al Aksa Mosque, was used by the mufti of Jerusalem, Ekrema Sabri, for a political message.

He told Pope John Paul that the mosque had been "continually targeted" since Israel seized East Jerusalem in 1967 and urged the pope to "stand by justice, in order to end the occupation of Jerusalem."

The pope avoided a direct response, saying: "Jerusalem has always been revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims."

The visit was marred by shouts from a group of about 15 men opposed to the reception given the pope. "God condemns you," one yelled at the Muslim leaders.

The chance of Muslim-Jewish reconciliation appears as clouded by the overall Israeli-Palestinian conflict as before the pope's visit. Sabri said Saturday that the Holocaust had been exaggerated.

Yesterday, Husseini distanced himself from Sabri's remarks, calling the Holocaust "horrible" but saying that for Muslims and Jews, the "political problem" between them had created a bad atmosphere.

The visit to Israel offered Israel an opportunity to demonstrate its welcome to all faiths. Palestinians say this freedom of worship doesn't extend to many from the West Bank and Gaza who aren't permitted to come to Jerusalem.

Pope John Paul was aware that politics couldn't be avoided, but in his homilies and statements he sought to guide Israelis and Palestinians toward meeting new standards of behavior for dealing with one another. But he kept several Masses and stops at holy sites purely spiritual, culminating in yesterday's church service.

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