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A leading Palestinian cleric commandeered an evening devoted to interfaith dialogue with Pope Benedict XVI on Monday to rant against Israel for "killing Gaza's children," "bulldozing Palestinian homes" and "destroying mosques."
In an impromptu speech, delivered in Arabic at the Notre Dame Pontifical Institute in Jerusalem, Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi, chief Islamic judge in the Palestinian Authority, launched a 10-minute tirade against the State of Israel for confiscating Palestinians' land and carrying out war crimes against the residents of Gaza.
He also called for the immediate return of all Palestinian refugees, and called on Christians and Muslims to unite against Israel.
Tamimi invoked the name of Saladin, the Muslim sultan who recaptured Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187. Tamimi said that unlike Israel, Saladin upheld the religious freedoms of all faiths.
Following the diatribe and before the meeting was officially over, the pope exited the premises. However, he shook Tamimi's hand before walking out.
The pope, speaking before Tamimi, discussed the importance of religion and truth for the advancement of humanity's mutual understanding.
He was visibly uncomfortable with the tone of Tamimi's discourse. Even those who did not understand his Arabic quickly understood that the Muslim cleric was giving a militant speech.
Several attempts were made by Latin Patriarch in the Holy Land Fouad Twal, a Palestinian, to politely stop Tamimi. But Tamimi would not be deterred from reading his written speech, apparently prepared in advance without the knowledge of the organizers.
When Tamimi finished, applause could be heard from a few dozen in an audience of a few hundred.
Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, responded to Tamimi's tirade by e-mail.
"The intervention of Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi was not previewed by the organizers of the interreligious meeting that took place at Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem.
"In a meeting dedicated for dialogue this intervention was a direct negation of what dialogue should be. We hope that such incident will not damage the mission of the Holy Father aiming at promoting peace and interreligious dialogue as he has clearly affirmed in many occasions in this pilgrimage.
"We hope also that interreligious dialogue in the Holy Land will not be damaged by this incident," Lombardi said.
Haifa Chief Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, the only Jewish representative on the stage with the pope, attacked Tamimi afterwards for "cynically exploiting the media opportunity to incite and disparage the State of Israel."
Cohen, who is also the cochairman of a joint Chief Rabbinate-Holy See interreligious committee, said he would refuse to meet with Tamimi again.
Oded Weiner, director-general of the Chief Rabbinate, called Tamimi's comments "scandalous" and said the Rabbinate was cutting off all ties with him.
"This unplanned speech embarrassed and was disrespectful toward our honored guest, the pope," Weiner said immediately after the speech.
"While the pope comes on a mission of peace and brotherhood, Sheikh Tamimi comes with a message of war," Weiner said.
The Foreign Ministry and Tourism Ministry released a joint statement saying it was "very unfortunate" that the sheikh took advantage of the event to "wildly incite against Israel."
The statement said that Israel condemned the comments, and that instead of furthering peace and dialogue, the sheikh chose to "sow division and hatred between Israel and the Palestinians, and Jews, Moslems and Christians."
Tamimi staged an identical verbal attack against Israel during Pope John Paul II's visit in March 2000.
Then, Tamimi called on "the occupier" to stop "strangling Jerusalem and oppressing its residents."
Citing land confiscations, house demolitions, settlements and the Baruch Goldstein massacre in Hebron in 1994, Tamimi said Israel had a long record of "genocide" and "shooting and wounding Palestinian children."
"The establishment of an independent Palestinian state with Yasser Arafat as its president and Jerusalem as its capital - this will stop the strife between the religions," Tamimi said at the time.
He also refused to shake the hand of then-chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau.
Rev. Dr. Trond Bakkevig of the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land, the interfaith body that works with Tamimi, said he was "terribly sorry" about Tamimi's speech. But he hoped that it would not shed a negative light on the entire evening.
"It is important that the whole evening is not just Tamimi's speech," said Bakkevig, who represented the (Lutheran) Church of Norway.
Herb Keinon contributed to this report