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Pope Begins Israel Pilgrimage by Calling for Interreligious Unity

March 22, 2000
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Pope John Paul II issued a call for peace and interreligious dialogue as he began a historic pilgrimage to Israel this week, the first papal visit here in 36 years.

“I pray that my visit will serve to encourage an increase of interreligious dialogue between the Jews, Christians and Muslims to seek in their respective beliefs a universal brotherhood that unites all members of the human family,” the pope said at a welcoming ceremony at Ben Gurion airport outside Tel Aviv.

The pope arrived on a Royal Jordanian flight from Amman, where he began the weeklong millennium pilgrimage that is including Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian self-rule areas.

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.”

Shielded by black umbrellas from a cold drizzle, the pope noted the evolving ties between Israel and the Vatican, including the 1994 establishment of diplomatic ties. He spoke of the “newfound openness” between Jews and Christians and the need to deepen interfaith understanding.

Echoing his appeal earlier this week to Israel and the Arabs to remain committed to the difficult search for peace, the pope noted that the process “binds” all the people of the region to pursue a lasting peace, and said Christians and Jews must make efforts to overcome all forms of prejudice.

While the Vatican has described the pilgrimage as a spiritual journey, undercurrents of other issues likely to come up during the six-day visit to Israel and the self-rule areas were already evident at the welcoming ceremony.

In his remarks, Israeli President Ezer Weizman noted that the State of Israel was established out of the devastation of the Holocaust. Weizman welcomed the pope’s apology last week for the sins committed by the Roman Catholic Church against other peoples and called for continued cooperation to “fight anti- Semitism.”

Israel welcomed the pope’s unprecedented apology last week, 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.

Israel is committed to providing the religions with access to their holy sites, Weizman said, adding that Jerusalem is the “heart of the Jewish people.”

The political debate between Israel and the Palestinians on Jerusalem heated up this week ahead of the pope’s visit. 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.

The pope’s pilgrimage to sites linked to the birthplace and life of Jesus were expected to take him to Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem.

In addition, the pope was scheduled to meet with Israeli leaders, the chief rabbis of Israel and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Israel has taken 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.

The front pages of Israeli newspapers were dominated Tuesday by the papal visit. The Israeli daily Ma’ariv summed the visit up, welcoming the pope in Latin.

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