Plans are underway for Pope Benedict XVI to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories in 2009, the Vatican has confirmed.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi confirmed to Newsmax Nov. 27th that “contacts are being made at a diplomatic level on a possible journey of the pope to the Holy Land in the course of 2009.” Other well-placed sources say the visit is being planned for the second week of May.
The pope is expected to travel to the region next year after being formally invited by Israeli President Shimon Peres. If it goes ahead, Benedict XVI will be the third pontiff to visit the Holy Land since the modern state of Israel was established in 1948.
News of a possible trip, leaked yesterday to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, comes amid tensions between Israel and the Vatican, most notably over accusations that Pope Pius XII was did too little to save Jews during World War Two. The Catholic Church hopes to beatify the wartime pontiff.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Pius last month, Benedict XVI rejected the accusations, saying Pius often acted secretly and silently because he felt that “only in this way would he be able to avoid the worst, and to save the largest possible number of Jews".
His comments followed a Rome symposium held by the Jewish-led Pave the Way Foundation which claimed that he may have saved as many as 860,000 Jewish lives. Reputed scholars believe Pius, an ardent anti-Communist, has been the victim of a smear campaign, originally perpetrated by the former Soviet Union.
In spite of the evidence, however, some Jewish and Israeli leaders still take a dim view of Pius and insist on seeing documents held in the Vatican archives. The Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem also continues to exhibit a photograph of Pius XII together with a caption saying he refused to condemn the extermination of the Jews. However, the Vatican denies the exhibit was a factor preventing a visit by Benedict XVI.
A further source of tension has been Benedict XVI's decision last year to liberalize celebration of the Church's ancient Latin Mass. The Mass calls for the conversion of Jews. Rome's Jewish community last week cancelled collaboration on future events with the Catholic Church in the city in light of these recent disputes.
Minor tensions also persist between Israel and the Vatican. The two states have only had full diplomatic relations since 1993, but Israel has still yet to fulfil its terms of the agreement regarding tax and property rights for the Church.
However, during a press conference in Rome last month, Rabbi David Rosen, head of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, said he did not think any of these difficulties were obstacles to a visit. Rather, he sees problems over protocol and a possible papal meeting with the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas. The organization controls Gaza and has vowed to destroy Israel.
"If he meets with Hamas then all hell will break loose," Rosen said. "If he avoids them altogether, he makes things difficult for the local Christian communities where Hamas's influence prevails." According to the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore, the Holy Father will visit the Palestinian Authority in Bethlehem, but not Gaza.
The paper also says the trip is expected to be strictly of a religious nature, and meetings with political leaders will be kept to a minimum. The visit will probably be short, lasting just two days.
According to many of those involved in Catholic-Jewish dialogue, until recently, relations between the two religions had never been better. However, these recent controversies have been a setback and, it is understood, caused the pope concern.
Originally, it was thought he would not travel to the Holy Land until the region was more peaceful and stable, but his willingness to ease recent tensions may have been a reason for bringing the visit forward.
Another reason for the urgency is to prevent an exodus of Christians leaving the Holy Land. The proportion of Christians living in the region has plummeted from 30 percent to 2 percent since 1948.
The Pope also no doubt hopes that his visit would help foster peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.
The last pontiff to visit the region was Pope John Paul II in 2000. He travelled to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, and paid a visit to Syria a year later.
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