Pope's visit sparks high hopes

Local Christian, Jewish, Muslim leaders voice their expectations for Benedict XVI's trip to the Holy Land.

Pope hands out 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Pope hands out 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Religious leaders representing the local Muslim, Catholic, Jewish and Protestant communities met at the Notre Dame Cultural Center in Jerusalem on Thursday to voice their expectations of the pope during his visit to the Holy Land. Bishop Dr. Munib Younan, head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, said he hoped Benedict XVI would support a two-state solution and reject "occupation and settlements." "The security of Israel is important to us," Younan said. "And this security depends on a just treatment of the Palestinian people. Jerusalem should be a city shared by all religions and serve as a model of peaceful religious coexistence. There are extremists on both sides who are trying to turn the conflict into a religious war. Religion must instead be a source of inspiration for peaceful coexistence." The symposium was sponsored by the US State Department; Mercy Corps, a nondenominational Portland, Oregon-based aid organization; and the Interreligious Coordination Council in Israel, a coalition of 70 Christian, Muslim and Jewish groups. Father William Shomali, rector of the Latin Seminary in Bet Jala, near Bethlehem, said he hoped the pope would help Jews, Christians and Muslims to recognize the suffering of "the other." "The pope will visit Yad Vashem to recognize the suffering of the Jews, he will visit with the Armenians to remember their suffering and the 1.5 million who were killed, and he will also devote time to acknowledging the Palestinian people's suffering," Shomali said. "I hope the holy father will help all of us escape our complexities of victimization. Part of the process of reconciliation is admitting one's guilt." Shomali, a Palestinian, called the present state of Israeli-Palestinian dialogue "an exercise in futility." "Like Joshua in the Old Testament, we must break down the walls, all of the invisible barriers such as fears, phobias and hatred that prevent us from making peace." Shomali recalled how during the visit of Pope John Paul II in 2000, suspicion between Muslim and Jewish religious leaders foiled attempts at religious dialogue. "Until the last minute it was unclear whether the grand mufti of Jerusalem would arrive," Shomali said. "Neither rabbis nor muftis were willing to submit their speeches in advance. And they refused to join the pope in a tree planting ceremony. "And each side spoke exclusively about their own suffering." Prof. Mohammed Dejani, founder and director of the American Studies Institute at Al-Quds University in east Jerusalem and founder of Wasatia, a new organization for the promotion of peace, said that "extremists have taken power on both [the Israeli and Palestinian] sides." "Religion should lead politics, not the other way around," Dejani said. "The pope should take the initiative in this endeavor." Dr. Deborah Weissman, co-chairwoman of the Interreligious Coordination Council, said she hoped the Benedict's "ambivalence" on theological issues affecting Jews would be clarified. The pope still had not made it absolutely clear that Jews did not need to embrace the belief that Jesus was the messiah to be redeemed, she said. "Recently there have been certain errors in judgment made by the Vatican regarding the Jewish people," Weissman said, apparently referring to the pope's attempt to heal a schism in the Catholic Church by readmitting four renegade bishops in January. The four had broken with the Church over the Vatican II reforms. One of them, Richard Williamson, is a Holocaust denier. Weissman said she understood the tensions within the Church but added that she expected to hear a clear message from Benedict.