Pope to Bring Hope on Crucial Middle East Trip
It is an iconic inter-faith image: a frail looking Pope John Paul II at the Kotel in March 2000 during his one and only visit to Israel.
On that occasion, the Pontiff famously followed the custom of slipping a note in a crack in the Wall, in which he asked for forgiveness for Catholic misdemeanours against Jews.
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When his successor Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Israel on 11 May, it will stir memories of that visit. In a five-day tour of Israel and the Palestinian territories, Pope Benedict will fulfil a number of engagements in Jerusalem and beyond including visits to the Kotel, Yad Vashem, Bethlehem and Nazareth.
His visit comes at a sensitive time in Catholic-Jewish relations. There have been murmurings from some in the Jewish world that there should be less focus on relations with the Catholic hierarchy and more on strengthening ties with Protestant groups. On the Catholic side, some observers think the Vatican is prioritising relations with Muslims over those with Jewish groups and other faiths.
More generally, Benedict has had a bumpy ride with interfaith relations. His Regensburg address in September 2006 caused grave offence to Muslims worldwide and resulted in protests and attacks on churches all over the world. A nun was even attacked and killed in Mogadishu.
With the Jewish community he has had mixed fortunes. Amidst bridge-building visits to Jewish communities in Cologne, the USA and Australia, there have been episodes which have undermined Catholic-Jewish relations. The alteration in the wording of the Good Friday Prayer with its derogatory reference to the "blindness" of Jews upset some; others have been alarmed by the potential canonisation of the war-time Pope, Pius XII.
But this pales compared with the recent furore caused by the decision to lift the excommunication of Richard Williamson, the Holocaust-denying prelate. In an unusual move, the Vatican later conceded that "mistakes" had been made which could have been avoided by making some simple checks on Williamson online. Yet the whole episode was particularly damaging for a German-born Pope, who was a member, albeit an involuntary one, of the Hitler Youth.
But we should not give up on this Pope yet. In pure demographic terms, the Catholic community numbering around one billion is a crucial constituency with which the Jewish world must engage. Pope Benedict, who has served as a high-ranking Vatican official since 1981 (when he was appointed Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), has a track-record of serving under the previous Pope when progress was made towards improving Catholic-Jewish relations. When it comes to international affairs, he opposes the liberation theology movement which views conflict through a prism of aggressor and underdog, and slips easily into a narrative of bullying Israel against the persecuted Palestinians.
Pope Benedict has endured a difficult four years since taking up the Papacy in 2005. If his visit is a diplomatic success it can help restore relations with the Jewish world and get things back on the right track.
• Zaki Cooper is a Trustee of the Council of Christians and Jews and a consultant to the Cambridge
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