After meeting with Pope John Paul II and senior Vatican officials this week, Israeli Religious Affairs Minister Shimon Shetreet said the pope would likely visit Israel by the end of 1997.
Shetreet also said he had asked the Vatican to investigate that had become of the monarah believed looted by Titus, the Roman emperor, when his forces destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.
“There is evidence that [the menorah] is in Rome,” Shetreet told reporters, adding that the investigation into its whereabouts could be a symbol “of reconciliation between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church.”
The triumphal Arch of Titus, located near Rome’s Colosseum, has a carving showing a huge menorah being carried during a procession of Jewish prisoners brought back to Rome after Titus’ conquest of Jerusalem.
The State of Israel modeled its own menorah emblem after this carving.
But some scholars say that because the carving shows a menorah with a double octagonal base, Titus did not capture the original menorah, which could be traced back to Moses. The original menorah had a three-legged stand.
Shetreet met the pope to renew Israel’s longstanding invitation for a papal visit.
The pope has frequently stated that he wants to visit the Holy Land.
Shetreet told reporters that a trip was “more likely to take place in 1997 than in 1996, but I don’t exclude 1996.”
A papal visit to Jerusalem, he said, “would encourage the peace process.”
The last papal visit to the region was a trip by Pope Paul VI in 1964.
Conditions for a new papal visit have been considerably eased since Israel and the Vatican established diplomatic relations two years ago. The Vatican also has relations with the Palestinians.
Shetreet said there should be no problem if the pope wanted to visit sites under limited Palestinian autonomy during his trip.
In a speech Saturday to diplomats accredited to the Vatican, the pope welcomed the progress of peace in the Middle East, but warned that differences over the status of Jerusalem could put the peace progress in danger.
He reiterated the Vatican position that Jerusalem should be a unique, multireligious entity and called for international guarantees to ensure this.
In another development Wednesday, the Italian Bishops Conference issued a statement saying that Catholic-Jewish dialogue was on the right track but had not been able to root out anti-Semitism.
“The dialogue between Jews and Catholics has been fruitful,” the statement said, “but it is not yet sufficient enough to extirpate the demon of anti- Semitism, which is always lying in ambush.”
The statement was released to mark Italy’s seventh annual “Day of Catholic- Jewish Dialogue.”