As the visit of Pope Francis to Israel approaches, there is increasing anxiety over the visit due to the rise of “price tag” attacks against Christian institutions. According to the latest reports, there has recently been a dramatic increase in these attacks on Christian institutions. The Catholic Church in Israel and abroad is quite upset, and has been lodging significant protests with the government of Israel.

It would clearly be in the interest of the government of Israel to arrest the culprits and bring them to justice, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because by continuing to ignore this the government will risk alienating Christians (and Muslims) around the world, who will not be able to understand why the state refuses or is unable to crack down on this pernicious, religiously-motivated and xenophobic rash of attacks against churches and mosques.

Nevertheless, in a few weeks, from May 24-26, Pope Francis will follow in the footsteps of his immediate two predecessors, by making another religious/diplomatic pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Pope John Paul II did so in 2000 with great fanfare and with magnificent gestures of reconciliation, and Pope Benedict followed suit in 2009.

When you think about the fact that heads of the Catholic Church now visit Israel on a regular basis, compared to the history of negative Jewish-Catholic relations of the past 2000 years, this is rather amazing. We are clearly in a new era, which I have called “The Era of Dialogue.” We have moved from persecution to partnership, from confrontation to cooperation, from diatribe to dialogue.

This unprecedented revolution in Jewish-Catholic relations has also include the revolution in the attitude of the Catholic Church to the Jewish state, the State of Israel.

Yet, people in Israel wonder: Why is the Pope coming to the region at this time? What message will he bring for us? The official answer is not directly related to Israel or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Pope’s office in an official press release has described the visit to the Holy Land as “a pilgrimage of prayer” and has said that the main purpose of his three-day visit is “to commemorate the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras of the Orthodox Church,” a meeting which took place in 1964, exactly 50 years ago.

Athenagoras’ successor as Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), Bartholomew I, who is recognized as “first among equals” in the leadership of the 250 million-member worldwide Orthodox Church, attended the inauguration of Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square last year – the first time in over a thousand years that a leader of the Orthodox Church attended this inauguration. Now, he has invited Pope Francis to join him in celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first encounter between a pope and an ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople since the Great Western Schism in 1054.

But, according to my sources in Rome, there are other important aims to this visit, although not stated explicitly. These include strengthening relations between Catholics and Jews in Israel, and between Catholics and Muslims in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories; seeking to foster Christian- Jewish-Muslim dialogue; advocating an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the creation of two sovereign independent states, and reconciliation between the two peoples; and confirming Christians in their faith and encouraging them to remain in the Holy Land.

In addition, the pope will be here to reaffirm his strong relations with the Jewish People and the Jewish state, and he will undoubtedly bring a religious message of hope for the future, not only for us, but for the region as well, including of course for the Palestinians.

Many people in Israel are unaware of the background to this process, and I have met religious leaders, including some leading rabbis in Israel, who insist that the Catholic Church is still anti-Semitic, and has yet to recognize Israel. Let me therefore set the record straight.

Since December 30, 1993 – when the Fundamental Agreement between the State of Israel and the Holy See was signed at the Israeli Foreign Ministry (I was there in person to witness it) – there have been full diplomatic relations between these two sovereign entities. Not only has the Vatican recognized Israel as the state of the Jewish people, but Israel has recognized the Vatican and entered into a relationship with its leadership. Undoubtedly these are among the most important diplomatic achievements Israel and the Vatican have achieved in recent times.

The 1993 agreement was a part of the ongoing revolution in relations between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church since the end of World War II. Ever since the proclamation known as “Nostra Aetate” (“In Our Time”) in October 1965, we live in a new era. Jews and Catholics around the world, including in Israel, are in constant dialogue with each other and often work together in common cause for peace and reconciliation around the world.

Indeed, the preamble of the 1993 historic agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel states clearly that its framers were “aware of the unique nature of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people, and of the historic process of reconciliation and growth in mutual understanding and friendship between Catholics and Jews.”

In addition to reaffirming diplomatic relations, Pope Francis will come to the region with a message of peace, to be achieved through dialogue.

Pope Benedict did this also. At the end of his first day in Jerusalem, on May 11, 2009, he paid tribute to all those people and organizations in Israel and Palestine who actually engage in interreligious and intercultural dialogue for peace in our part of the world. I was honored to help organize and attend a special convocation and reception at the Notre Dame cultural center in the heart of Jerusalem, at which the pope acknowledged and encouraged people working in this field, like myself and many of my colleagues, to continue and expand their work.

Very few people know about the quiet achievements of those engaged in interreligious dialogue groups involving religious leaders, youth, young adults and educators in Israel and Palestine. They meet regularly, encountering the divine image in the Other and engaging in reconciliatory action projects to mitigate hatred and violence. They offer an alternative path to conflict, one learning to live together in harmony and in mutual respect.

Undoubtedly, as with his predecessors, one of Pope Francis’ most vital messages on this trip will be another heartfelt call for peace and reconciliation among the peoples of the different nationalities and religions who live in Jerusalem and the Holy Land.

Hopefully, this pilgrimage will be remembered in history as well as another important milestone in the strengthening of ties between the Holy See, the Jewish People and the State of Israel.

Accordingly, I welcome Pope Francis to Israel in advance. And I call upon the government of Israel to do everything in its power to put an end to the epidemic of hate crimes in Israel against Christian and Muslim institutions. We would certainly demand the same of the Catholic Church or any other government, if a wave of anti-Semitic attacks was taking place in any sovereign state.

Moreover, I would only wish that the people of Israel – and the region – would be genuinely open to the message of peace and friendship that Pope Francis will bring with him. We need it now, more than ever before.

The author is a rabbi/educator who serves as founder and director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (www.icci.org.il ), which is also the Israel chapter of Religions for Peace.


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