Papal envoy: Pope's visit to be religious, not political

"The holy father comes as the head of the Catholic Church. He does not come as the head of the Vatican," says Archbishop Antonio Franco.

pope drinks from cup 248 ap (photo credit: AP)
pope drinks from cup 248 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority in May will be religious rather than political, the papal envoy in Jerusalem said on Tuesday. "I can expect that the holy father will also say a word that can have political implications, but the visit is not political. The visit is religious," said Archbishop Antonio Franco during a press conference at the Notre Dame Hotel. "And the holy father comes as the head of the Catholic Church. He does not come as the head of the Vatican state to make a political visit." The pope, he noted, was coming to the region as a person of faith to make pilgrimage to holy places in the area. The pope's intention is to express his solidarity and closeness to the people of Israel, Palestine and, through them, "all the peoples of the Middle East," he said. During his visit from May 8th to May 15th, the pope will visit the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall, Franco said. He will also meet with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and visit the former headquarters of the Chief Rabbinate, he said. "You will be wrong if you read this pilgrimage with political glasses," Franco said. But the visit will come during a time of strained relations between Israel and the Vatican, and the second official visit by a pope to the Jewish state could help to smooth things over. While the Vatican has had full cooperation from the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, "we have had no pressure for political bias... or to give some strictly political message," he said. "There has been great collaboration and great respect for holy father, who comes as a spiritual leader, that he can address in the way that he wants and in any situation and circumstance," he said. At the same time, however, the pope would be very happy if his visit had some kind of effect on the peace process, said Archbishop Paul Sayah, the Maronite Archbishop of Haifa and the Holy Land. "We all understand how the issue of peace in this land is important to the pope," he added. The pope will be leading three public masses during his eight-day visit. One will be in Jerusalem, expected to be attended by about 5,000 people, a second will be in Bethlehem and a third will be in Nazareth, expected to draw between 40,000 and 50,000 people, officials said. Travel restrictions will also be eased for Palestinian Christians in the West Bank and Gaza who wish to participate in parts of the pope's visit. For example, the Vatican has requested from Israel that a delegation from Gaza be allowed to attend the mass in Bethlehem and that at least two buses be allowed to transport the pilgrims from the coastal strip. The request had been granted, said Sayah. The pope will pray in the Cenacle, where Jesus is believed to have had the Last Supper, on his first day in Jerusalem and at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on the last day of his trip before returning to Italy, he said. The pope will also visit President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He is also to visit Yad Vashem, though not the museum itself. Ties were rattled recently when Benedict tried to reinstate an excommunicated bishop who denied the Holocaust. Benedict condemned the bishop's remarks, spoke out against anti-Semitism and called off the reinstatement until the bishop satisfied his demands. The two sides also disagree over the legacy of the wartime pontiff Pius XII, who some historians say did not do everything in his power to prevent the Holocaust or limit its scope. "We are trying to clarify the issues," Franco said. AP contributed to this report.