Pope pledges to do 'utmost' to gain Schalit's release

Pontiff receives soldier's family, letter from relatives of executed Mossad spy Eli Cohen.

pope peres flag 248 88 (photo credit: AP)
pope peres flag 248 88
(photo credit: AP)
The family of Gilad Schalit asked Pope Benedict XVI on Monday to use his influence to prompt the soldier's Hamas captors for a sign that he was still alive. During a meeting at Beit Hanassi with Schalit's father, Noam, and other family members, the pope promised to do his utmost to work for the soldier's release. Noam Schalit told the pope that for three years, no one had been allowed to visit his son in captivity. When Gilad Schalit was 11 years old, he wrote a story, "When the Shark and the Fish First Met." The story was turned into a book, which was translated into Italian and was a best seller at the Turin International Book Fair a year ago. Noam Schalit presented a copy to the pope, who asked Schalit, his wife Aviva and Gilad's grandfather, Zvi Schalit, many questions about the author. The 15-minute meeting took place before President Shimon Peres and the pope went out into the garden of Beit Hanassi to speak in front of 600 guests. Among them were former president Yitzhak Navon and the widows of presidents Chaim Herzog and Ezer Weizman, as well as government ministers, Knesset members, members of the papal delegation, leaders of the various religious communities in Israel, members of the diplomatic corps, and leading Israeli figures in different fields. The message of the Schalit family was endorsed by singers Dudu Fisher and David D'Or, backed by an ecumenical girls' choir singing "Bring Him Home" in Hebrew, Arabic and English. However, relatives of executed Israeli spy Eli Cohen who had been invited to the reception were upset that they had not been given the same opportunity as the Schalits, to meet the pope and ask him to intercede with the Syrian authorities as another step in the long attempt to bring Cohen's remains to Israel for burial. In a letter Cohen's brother Abraham wrote to the pope, he noted that the pontiff's visit to the Holy Land coincided with the 44th anniversary of Eli Cohen's execution by hanging in Martyrs Square in Damascus. Cohen's widow, Nadia, who has been tirelessly campaigning for the release of his body, said that the state had forgotten what it owed him. Both she and her brother-in-law said that part of Israel's victory in the 1967 Six Day War could be credited to Cohen. Nadia Cohen added that her children were now older than their father had been at the time of his death. Peres promised Abraham Cohen that he would deliver the letter to the Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. Another guest at the reception was State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, whom Abraham Cohen approached and asked to assist. When The Jerusalem Post asked Lindenstrauss whether he was going to help, he replied that he would so privately, but not in his public capacity. In fact, he said, he had been making efforts privately for a long time and was well aware of the situation, since one of his closest friends is author Sami Michael, Nadia Cohen's brother.