Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

A Papal Pilgrim's Progress

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By Yehonathan Tommer


Pope Benedict XVI’s five-day “pastoral pilgrimage of prayer and unity” for peace and reconciliation in Israel and the Palestinian territories in May passed without serious hitches – though his unusual speech at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial aroused controversy in Israel.

The 82-year-old Pontiff and Head of the Vatican statelet commands a world following of over one and a half billion faithful. His multiple messages were addressed to Israelis and Jews, to Palestinians, to Muslims, to his Catholic faithful and other Christian communities. Like an acrobat walking a tightrope over stormy emotional waters, he had to balance these interests so that no group accused him of prejudice or favouritism.

It is perhaps unsurprising that some of his messages, frequently couched in theological language, were filtered through political agendas and criticised for not meeting preconceived expectations.


Controversy over the Holocaust and Holocaust denial

“I appreciate the opportunity of being here to honour the memory of six million Jewish victims of the Shoah and to pray that humanity will never again witness a crime of such magnitude,” Benedict XVI said arriving at Ben Gurion Airport aboard a Jordanian Airlines plane flying the Vatican and Israeli flags. He condemned antisemitism which “continues to raise its ugly head in many parts of the world and said “it was totally unacceptable and every effort must be made to combat (it) wherever it is found.”

Following a memorial ceremony later at Yad Vashem, Rabbi Meir Lau, a former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi and Chairman of Yad Vashem, said he expected the Pontiff to endorse his earlier denunciation of antisemitism to include Holocaust deniers and the German Nazis who had murdered six million Jews. “But he did neither.”

Instead, the former German-born professor of theology delivered a didactic lesson on the importance of commemorating names and sanctifying their namesakes. In an oblique reference to the Holocaust and contemporary antisemitism he did say: “May the names of these victims never perish, be denied, belittled or forgotten…The Catholic Church feels deep compassion for the victims remembered here and is committed to praying and working tirelessly to ensure that hatred will never reign in the hearts of men again.”

“It’s as if the Pontiff had transposed his speeches. His unequivocal message at the airport to the Jewish people should have been made at Yad Vashem,” commented Arnon Ramon, a Hebrew University specialist on Vatican-Israel relations.

Commenting on the Pope’s failure to mention or atone for past Catholic antisemitism in his statement, Haaretz editorialised that “Sorry” (in Hebrew Slicha) was the single word absent from Benedict’s speech at the Holocaust Memorial. This was a missed opportunity of symbolic and political importance, the paper added.

Defending him against growing criticism in Israel, Vatican Spokesman Father Frederico Lombardi said that the Pontiff had spoken about his German roots on other occasions at the synagogue in Cologne and at Auschwitz. “Benedict XVI was never a member of the Hitler Youth movement. Nor can he be expected to recall every detail every time he gives a speech,” he added. He later had to retract this statement when it was pointed out that, as a boy, the Pontiff had indeed briefly been, at least nominally, a member of the Hitlerjugend at a time when all Germans of his age where required to participate in the Nazi youth group.


The Real Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI was a key adviser to Pope John Paul II, and contrary to his ultra-conservative image, he follows in his predecessor’s footsteps, says Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Interreligious Affairs at the American Jewish Congress in Jerusalem. Rosen’s observation rests on a long-time personal acquaintance with the Pontiff at meetings of the bilateral commission on Vatican-Israel relations.

“Benedict has privately spoken of Judaism as ‘the living historic roots of Christianity’. There will be no backtracking on Pope John Paul’s achievements,” said Rosen. “He can’t do anything dramatically new because it’s all been done. But it is important for him to reinforce those earlier pioneering steps.”

The policy is the same, though the personalities and styles are quite different, Rosen added. “Benedict lacks diplomatic experience and competence in public communications, but this will change with the right advice. He is much shyer than his charismatic predecessor but equally committed to Vatican-Jewish dialogue and to normalising ties with the State of Israel.”

His drawbacks in terms of public communications were patently evident in the Vatican’s mishandling earlier this year of the controversies surrounding the beatification of war-time Pope Pius XII and demands to open Vatican archives on this period to scholarly research, as well as the reinstatement of Catholic Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson, Rosen went on to say.

The Vatican has now agreed to open the archives in five to six years’ time. Bishop Williamson also will not be accepted back into the Church after all, the Pontiff assured Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger. “That would have sent the wrong message to the… Holocaust denier in Iran,” Metzger said.


The Official Meetings

Benedict XVI reiterated his unwavering commitment to Jewish-Christian dialogue and reconciliation in his meeting with Chief Rabbis Metzger and Amar. Fruitful discussions have been regularly held over the past eight years on the sanctity of life and the family, prayer, penitence, freedom of worship and morality.

According to Oded Ben Hur, Israel’s former Ambassador to the Vatican, a long-negotiated fiscal agreement, which Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu promised the Pope he would speed up, should be concluded by December 2009. It will regulate the Vatican’s management regarding church properties and institutions (but not transfer any sovereignty to the Vatican as was at one point proposed) and also stipulate the taxes that would be payable to the State of Israel.

At their private meeting in Nazareth, Netanyahu reportedly urged the Pope to use “his moral voice” to condemn the antisemitic declarations of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Israel wants peace with the Palestinians and not to dominate them. But it doesn’t want “a terror state backed by Iran to rise alongside Israel to jeopardise its safety,” he told the Pope.

Extremism must be battled and moderate elements in the region supported the Pope said, stressing that he had spearheaded the battle against antisemitism around the world.

The visit also led to agreement on measures to step up Vatican-Israel dialogue. Such dialogues are already held bi-annually with the participation of international Jewish organisations, the Chief Rabbinate and Israeli foreign ministry officials. The dialogue will be upgraded to ministerial level and include a political agenda on measures to combat antisemitism and terrorism, as well as discuss academic and scholarly cooperation with Catholic theological institutions and regular pilgrim tours to Israel, said Ben Hur.


Outreach to Muslims and Support for Palestinian Statehood

The Pontiff also sought to improve the Vatican’s relations with the Muslim world. These were principally focused in Jordan which has a Christian community of some 100,000. Positive meetings were held with Jordanian political and religious leaders.

A Vatican outreach during a high profile interfaith meeting of Jewish, Christian and Muslim spiritual leaders at Jerusalem’s Notre Dame pontifical institute was marred when an unscheduled speaker, Sheikh Taysir Tamimi, the chief justice of the religious courts in the West Bank and Gaza, grabbed the microphone and launched a tirade against the evils of the Israeli occupation demanding Muslim-Christian cooperation against Israel. The Pontiff departed the meeting early in response to this undiplomatic usurpation.

Rosen labeled the event a “scandalous debacle.” Arnon, who was also present at the gathering, noted that Benedict XVI spoke as “an academic and theologian delivering a sermon in a style unsuited to the assembled forum of NGOs.”

By contrast, his meeting with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Muhammad Ahmad Hussein on the Temple Mount (Haram as-Sharif) was reportedly cordial. The two men spoke of the “sufferings of the Palestinian people and their demand for justice.” The Mufti said the Pope was “receptive” and hoped his visit would contribute to peace.

In Bethlehem Benedict XVI told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that he empathised with Palestinian suffering and supported their “right to an independent state.” He also referred to the security fence at the al-Aida refugee camp as a “grave reminder of the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate” and called for the removal of road blocks to allow Palestinians to freely reach holy places of worship.


Strengthening the Christian Presence

The Pope officiated at three festive, pageant celebrations of Holy Mass in East Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth attended by tens of thousands of excited local faithful and some 10,000 pilgrims from abroad gaily waving Vatican flags. He also met with the local Latin, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Patriarchs to encourage and strengthen these Arab Christian minorities.

According to at least some reports, assisting and encouraging local Christians were actually envisioned by the pontiff as the central goals of his pilgrimage.

The continued presence of established Christian communities as the guardians of Christian Holy sites and institutions is “of paramount importance,” the Vatican’s Nuncio to Israel Monsignor Antonio Franco said. “We look forward to the day in which we can live in this area in peace, without fear and the need to protect and defend ourselves. We need unity among Christians, among religions and in society to strengthen understanding, acceptance and collaboration, to create a human family in this region in which everybody feels at home.”

Christians in Bethlehem and the Palestinian territories have dwindled to some 34,000 including fewer than 10,000 in East Jerusalem, through both harassment by Muslim extremists and emigration to improve their economic prospects. In Israel, where they are better off, their numbers have actually grown from 120,000 Arab Christians in 1948 to some 180,000, augmented by Christians who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union and foreign guest workers.

The Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal presented the Pope with a report on conditions in the Christian communities. The report and its recommended incentives will be submitted to the Israeli government. It proposes tax concessions on Church property, visas for Vatican officials, family reunification in Israel with relatives in Jordan and the Palestinian territories and unhindered passage for priests through roadblocks, etc. to assist them to fulfill their pastoral responsibilities. These will help to ease the harsh situation for Palestinian Christians, especially in Gaza after Operation Cast Lead, Twal told local media.

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