JERUSALEM (JTA) — Why has Israel’s leadership invited Pope Benedict XVI to pay a state visit to Israel at this moment in time? What message of great importance will he bring with him for Israelis and Palestinians — Jews, Christians and Muslims — who all share this same land?
Notwithstanding the bumps in the road in the Jewish and Israeli relationship with this pope, Benedict has decided to come to Israel in May to strengthen his ties with the people and the state, as well as to reach out to local Christians in the Galilee and Bethlehem.
By combining diplomacy with pilgrimage, this pope will follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who made a historic visit here in March 2000.
Since Dec. 30, 1993, when the Fundamental Agreement between the State of Israel and the Holy See was signed at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, there have been full diplomatic relations between these two sovereign entities. Not only has the Vatican recognized Israel as the state of the Jewish people, but Israel has recognized the Vatican and entered into a relationship with its leadership. Undoubtedly these are among the most important diplomatic achievements Israel and the Vatican have achieved in recent times.
The 1993 agreement also outlined a series of issues, especially legal and financial ones, that are part of the revolution in relations between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church since the end of World War II. The preamble of this historic agreement states clearly that its framers were “aware of the unique nature of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people, and of the historic process of reconciliation and growth in mutual understanding and friendship between Catholics and Jews.”
In addition to reaffirming diplomatic relations, the pope is coming to the region with a message of peace and reconciliation.
At the end of his first day in Jerusalem, on May 11, he will pay tribute to all those people and organizations in Israel and Palestine that actually engage in interreligious dialogue for peace in this part of the world. At a special convocation and reception, the pope will acknowledge and encourage people working in this field to continue and expand their work.
According to the papal representative in Israel, Antonio Franco, “This special event will be held in Jerusalem because we strongly believe that there should be respect and cooperation among people of different religions in order to help reach peace in the region.”
Very few people know about the quiet achievements of those engaged in interreligious dialogue and action groups involving religious leaders, women, youth and educators in Israel and Palestine. They meet regularly, encountering the divine image in the Other and engaging in reconciliatory action projects to mitigate hatred and violence. They offer an alternative path to conflict, one of peaceful coexistence.
The very fact that the leader of the Catholic Church will devote a major audience to these people in his only day in Jerusalem attests to the importance he places in the message of peace and the method of dialogue.
This is not a time to focus on the problematics of the relationship between Israel and the Vatican. There will be other occasions for that.
This is a celebratory moment, a time to say “Dayenu,” to express gratitude for the Catholic Church’s commitment to strengthen and enhance diplomatic relations with Israel. It also is a unique opportunity to “seek peace and pursue it,” as it says in Deuteronomy 16:20. We should respond positively to the pope’s message of peace and the imperative of dialogue between peoples and religions as a way to promote peaceful living in this holy land.
Ron Kronish is a rabbi and educator who serves as the director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (www.icci.org.il).