JERUSALEM, March 22 (JTA) Despite the political sensitivities surrounding Pope John Paul II’s historic pilgrimage to the Holy Land, there is no doubt that the visit marks a pinnacle in relations between Israel and the Vatican.
In marked contrast to the last papal visit to Israel in 1964, when Pope Paul VI never publicly mentioned Israel by name, Pope John Paul II was welcomed Tuesday with a full state ceremony at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Israel and the Vatican established diplomatic relations in 1993 and that created an important difference between the two visits: This week, the pope’s itinerary included meetings with Israel’s president, prime minister and chief rabbis, in addition to visits to Christian holy sites.
But the pope has gone beyond the step of getting the Vatican to forge diplomatic ties with the Jewish state. He is viewed as doing more than any of his predecessors toward furthering reconciliation between Catholics and Jews.
In his initial remarks at Tuesday’s welcoming ceremony, the pope issued a call for Jews and Christians to set aside all forms of prejudice to try to advance mutual understanding.
The address came a week after the pope sought forgiveness for the historic wrongdoings of the Catholic Church against Jews and other groups.
Israel welcomed the pope’s unprecedented apology, but expressed disappointment it did not include an explicit reference to the Holocaust.
Before the pope’s arrival, some Israeli officials said they believe an explicit mention of the Holocaust would be appropriate particularly during John Paul’s planned visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial.
Among those hoping for such a comment was Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
“I personally, as the grandchild of Jews who perished in the Holocaust, as an Israel and as the leader of a strong and free Israel, see special meaning in the plea for forgiveness and the pope’s visit to Yad Vashem,” Barak said.
The Vatican has repeatedly stressed the spiritual nature of the pope’s millennium pilgrimage in the footsteps of Moses and Jesus.
But from the moment the pope arrived on a Royal Jordanian flight from Amman where he began the weeklong millennium pilgrimage in Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian self-rule areas he was immersed in the politics of the region.
He was greeted on the tarmac by three Israeli children Jewish, Muslim and Christian who presented him with a bowl full of earth, which the pope kissed.
Israel’s president and prime minister then met the pope, and he was welcomed by Israeli Cabinet members and leading religious officials in Israel while a military band played “Jerusalem of Gold” which celebrates the return of Jewish holy sites after the 1967 Six-Day War.
Shielded by black umbrellas from a cold drizzle, the pope listened as President Ezer Weizman referred to Jerusalem as the “capital of the State of Israel” and “the heart of the Jewish people.”
Like most states, the Vatican has never recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. During his remarks, the pope made no reference to Jerusalem.
On Wednesday, when the pope visited the Palestinian-ruled town of Bethlehem, where he celebrated Mass, John Paul made reference to the Palestinian people’s right to a homeland.
The “torment” of the Palestinian people “has gone on too long,” the pope said at a welcoming ceremony with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
Palestinian officials were quick to take the pope’s comments and indeed his whole visit to the self-rule areas as a specific endorsement of Palestinian statehood.
But when a Vatican spokesman was asked whether the pope’s kissing of a pot of soil presented by a Palestinian child during a welcoming ceremony meant the Holy See acknowledged a Palestinian state, the spokesman said that it was natural for the pope to kiss the soil from Jesus’ birthplace.
Vatican policy on a Palestinian state would only be determined after an international decision is made on the matter, the spokesman added.
For their part, Israeli officials downplayed the pope’s remarks acknowledging the Palestinians right to a national homeland.
Cabinet minister Haim Ramon said this had been the Israeli government’s long-standing policy since the peace accord with Egypt was signed over 20 years ago.
“For whoever does not know, an agreement called Camp David was signed” in 1978, he told Israel Radio. In that agreement, Israel “recognized the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.”
The pope’s visit to the Dehaisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem on Wednesday was equally sensitive. Palestinian refugees were hoping the visit would promote their demand for a right to return to Israel.
During that visit, John Paul called on regional leaders to find a just solution to the hardships of the Palestinian refugees.
The pope’s comments fell short of the clear endorsement of the right of return that the Palestinians had hoped for.
The political debate between Israel and the Palestinians on Jerusalem heated up this week prior to the pope’s visit and will likely continue after he leaves the region.
Israel declared it would not allow the Palestinians to try to gain politically from the visit. This came after Palestinians on Sunday floated a balloon over Orient House in eastern Jerusalem, the Palestinian Authority’s de facto headquarters, bearing the Vatican and Israeli flags.
Israel took unprecedented security measures for the visit, including stationing thousands of police officers and detaining right-wing Jewish extremists suspected of distributing anti-pope posters and planning to disrupt the visit.