When Pope Benedict XVI visits the Holy Land, he will be more than a VIP sightseer – he is expected to demand that Israel surrender to the Vatican dominion and control over no less than five holy sights, according to a report in Israel Today.
President Shimon Peres is in favor of the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu relinquishing the sites to the Catholic Church in order to foster Jewish-Christian relations, but the historic exchange is considered to be far from a done deal.
According to the Associated Press, the pontiff will visit Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories during his eight-day Holy Land tour that begins Friday. It’s only the second official papal visit to the Jewish homeland -- and comes nine years after a precedent-setting trip by Pope John Paul II, who famously worshipped at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews pray.
Despite the Pope’s pragmatic agenda, the Vatican has been downplaying political goals and emphasizing the higher spiritual purposes of the papal visit.
“The aim of the Holy Father coming is to pray; to pray for peace, to pray for unity,” said Monsignor Antonio Franco, the apostolic nuncio to Israel, who discussed the plans for the visit at a briefing held Monday, according to a report in the Jerusalem Post.
But Vatican-watchers know that the Pope will be busy negotiating behind the scenes to bring a number of fabled sites under the Papal fold, including: The Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth; The Coenaculum on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, traditional location of Jesus’ Last Supper; Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives; Mount Tabor in the Lower Galilee region; and the Church of the Multiplication, which lies along the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
Already there are rumblings from those who want Israel to hold on to its most sacred real estate.
Israel Today reported that Tourism minister Stas Misezhnikov said that if turning over the sites would guarantee a major boost in Christian tourism that would be one thing. But as Catholics have never been strong supporters of Israel, what Peres is asking would amount to “handing out gifts.”
Meanwhile, Israel is buzzing with activity to prepare for the Pope’s visit. In addition to meeting with religious leaders, the Pope is slated to confer with Netanyahu, Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat issued a statement welcoming visiting Catholics to his city, which he called “the heart and soul of the Jewish people.”
Whether Israel is ready to surrender vital parts of that “heart and soul” remains to be seen.
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