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New York Prelate Apologizes: O’connor Denies Ill Will Toward Israel

John Cardinal O’Connor, the Archbishop of New York, began his four-day visit to Israel Thursday morning with profuse apologies for any offense he might have given by his refusal to meet with Israeli leaders in an official capacity in Jerusalem.

The prelate expressed his contrition from the pulpit of Saint Savior Convent Church in the Old City where he held Mass only hours after he crossed into Israel from Jordan over the Allenby Bridge. Speaking extemporaneously to the congregants, mainly Palestinian Christians, his words were clearly aimed at the scores of reporters packed into the rear of the church.

“I deeply regret and apologize for any offenses that might be perceived by the people of Israel and those who govern Israel,” O’Connor said. “My very presence and remarks I will make will clearly indicate to our friends here in Israel that far from bearing any ill will, I bear them nothing but love and wish them nothing but peace.” He added that he was certain the Vatican shared his feelings.

To the apparent discomfort of many of the congregants, the Cardinal read a long passage from a book by Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel about the Holocaust. He also quoted from the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, and scriptural passages from King David.

O’Connor conveyed the annual peace message of Pope John Paul II in which he appealed to terrorists to abandon their methods.

A TRIP FRAUGHT WITH CONTROVERSY

The Cardinal’s trip to Israel was fraught with controversy before he left New York. O’Connor, who said he had scheduled meetings with President Chaim Herzog, Premier Yitzhak Shamir, Vice Premier and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Mayor Teddy Kollek of Jerusalem, asked that they meet him outside their offices to avoid any semblance of official contacts.

He also declined, in advance, a tour of Christian holy places with Kollek as his escort to point out how the Israeli government protects and cares for them.

The Cardinal acknowledged that his predicament arose from instructions from the Vatican which has never formally recognized Israel or the status of Jerusalem as its capital. He said he had made a mistake in originally scheduling meetings without Vatican approval.

The Vatican was accused of a “double standard” by American Jewish leaders and many Israelis. It does not maintain diplomatic relations with Jordan but raised no objections to O’Connor’s meeting with King Hussein at the royal palace in Amman.

AVOIDS MAKING ANTI-ISRAEL STATEMENT

If his Israeli hosts were nonplussed, the Cardinal was clearly embarrassed and sought to make amends before he reached Israel. He used a Jordanian television interview from Amman Tuesday night to extend his “apologies and regrets” that he had to abide by “certain restrictions” because of “the unsettled status of Jerusalem.” He avoided an attempt by the interviewer to elicit an anti-Israel statement from him.

When pressed to agree with her statement about Israeli injustice and the justice of the Arab and Palestinian cause, O’Connor said he would not be drawn into those matters. He was a friend of both Arabs and Jews, he declared.

“I am in no way politicizing this trip,” he said. “As I was getting ready to leave I came to realize what I should have recognized before but simply didn’t, that there are certain restrictions for me because of the unsettled status of Jerusalem…It has nothing to do with Israel as such–there is no question about the reality of Israel…”

HERZOG DELIVERS SHARP CRITICISM

Apologies and explanations notwithstanding, O’Connor was excoriated by President Herzog Tuesday night, though not directly or by name.

“Those who would be messengers of peace” should know that “peace is not a subject for lip service. It is a subject for encounter, for dialogue, for understanding all points of view,” Herzog said in an address to church leaders at the President’s annual Christmas-New Year reception for the heads of the Christian communities in Israel.

He added, “Men of good will and those would-be messengers of peace must face (realities) by not allowing themselves to become engaged in unproductive political gestures based on age-old prejudice which apparently, despite protestation to the contrary, die hard.”

PERES SUGGESTS A ‘PRIVATE PILGRIMAGE’

Peres, who extended the invitation to O’Connor when they met in New York last October, suggested Tuesday that the Cardinal designate his visit to Israel a “private pilgrimage.”

“Cardinal O’Connor must decide himself on the nature of his visit. He can come as a pilgrim or give the visit an official formal tone,” Peres said. “If he decides it’s only a pilgrimage… We would respect his decision and there would be no official meetings.”

When O’Connor crossed the Allenby Bridge Thursday morning he was greeted by a low-level government official, Daniel Rossing, who heads the Christian Communities Department at the Religious Affairs Ministry.

During his stay in Israel, which will end Sunday, O’Connor will visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. He will also meet with Mayor Kollek and Religious Affairs Minister Zevulun Hammer at their offices. The Vatican placed no ban on meetings with Israeli officials necessary in the daily conduct of church affairs.

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