Tags: Jerusalem | Hails | Pope's | Interfaith | Outreach

Jerusalem Hails Pope's Interfaith Outreach

Saturday, 02 April 2005 12:00 AM

Though his record was not without controversy, the pope used his frequent homilies and travels to pursue religious reconciliation. His visits to a synagogue in Rome and a mosque in Damascus, Syria, were the first by a pontiff to Jewish and Muslim houses of worship.

John Paul frequently called for a peaceful end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and during the recent 4 1/2 years of fighting, urged leaders on both sides to marshal the courage to find peace.

"He wanted peace for everyone," said Mohammad Ahmed, 22, a Palestinian Muslim computer science student who lives in Jerusalem's Old City. "He wanted people of different religions to be like brothers, not like Jews and Muslims have been."

When the pope was in the Holy Land in March 2000, he urged Muslims and Jews to coexist peacefully in this lifetime, Ahmed recalled. "He's right, there's only one chance."

About 150 worshippers, most of them Palestinians, joined by a few pilgrims, gathered at the Church of the Nativity in Jesus' birthplace, the West Bank town of Bethlehem, to celebrate a special mass for John Paul.

The Rev. Amjad Sabbara recalled the pope's support for a new housing development for parishioners. "He always kept Bethlehem in his heart," he said.

Sister Mira Kasabreh, a young nun from Beit Jalla near Bethlehem, said, "We feel a kind of sadness, but at the same time, we know that God is with our pope."

At the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, which marks the place where tradition holds Jesus was crucified, people from the world over praised John Paul's contributions to religious tolerance and coexistence.

"He's been loved by so many and helpful to so many," said pilgrim Omer Jackson, preacher of the Christian Extended Hand church in Los Angeles. "I hope his successor will be as good a man."

John Paul, who grew up in a heavily Jewish town in Poland, often condemned anti-Jewish prejudice as sinful. In 1986, he made papal history with a visit to Rome's main synagogue. He established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1993, and in 2000 became the first pontiff to visit Israel in 36 years, praying at Judaism's holiest site, the Western Wall.

Israel's chief rabbis had a first Vatican audience just last year.

Yossi Beilin, a left-wing Israeli lawmaker, was closely involved in the negotiations that led to the establishment of diplomatic ties between Israel and the Vatican.

"I think he was very, very courageous in his moves toward Israel, both in the establishment of diplomatic ties, in his statements on Jews, and in his 2000 visit," said Beilin, who was deputy foreign minister at the time.

"The fact that he was ready to establish diplomatic ties before a final status agreement (between Israel and the Palestinians) was reached confounded all the experts' expectations," he said.

Israel's chief rabbis were not available for comment because of the Jewish Sabbath.

Still, there were sore points between Israel and the Vatican, the papacy of Pius XII among them. Although John Paul expressed remorse for the failure of some Christians to protect Jews during World War II, he beatified wartime pontiff Pius XII, who some Jews say didn't act forcefully enough against the Holocaust.

A Vatican document asserting the primacy of the Roman Catholic faith also strained relations.

So, too, did the pope's assertion that Israel created a new "obstacle" to peace by building a barrier to separate it from the West Bank. Israel says it needs the barrier to keep out Palestinian attackers. Palestinians say the barrier, which incorporates about 8% of the West Bank on the "Israeli" side, is a land grab.

"He was a man of peace, and supportive of the Palestinian cause," said Adnan Husseini, the director of the Islamic Trust, or Waqf, that oversees the Jerusalem holy site known as Temple Mount, or Haram as-Sharif. "His position regarding the Palestinian cause was good, and especially his position regarding Jerusalem and his opposition to building the wall around Jerusalem and in the Palestinian territories," Husseini said.

The most-traveled pope of all times visited many Muslim countries, and, with an unprecedented papal visit to the Omayyad mosque in Syria in 2001, earned respect for his efforts at dialogue with Islam.

During his millennium year visit to the Holy Land, John Paul kissed Palestinian soil and held hands with the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, in an affirmation of the Palestinians' right to a homeland.

"This man has always stood by the Palestinian people," said Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia. "He always had positive and just positions toward the rights of the Palestinian people."

Nafez Azzam, a top leader of the Islamic Jihad militant group, paid homage to John Paul as an "important leader for humanity," who saw his role as "the head of a spear that fights oppression and aggression."

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Though his record was not without controversy, the pope used his frequent homilies and travels to pursue religious reconciliation. His visits to a synagogue in Rome and a mosque in Damascus, Syria, were the first by a pontiff to Jewish and Muslim houses of worship....
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Saturday, 02 April 2005 12:00 AM
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