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Peres Meets With Pope in Vatican

Israel's indefatigable Shimon Peres met with Pope Benedict XVI today, and submitted an invitation to visit Israel from Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
By Hillel Fendel
First Publish: 4/6/2006, 2:39 PM / Last Update: 4/6/2006, 5:24 PM


The two met for 40 minutes in the Vatican, and the Pope said he hopes to visit Israel sometime in the first half of next year. They said afterwards that they had discussed Middle East matters. "I definitely believe that a visit by the Pope can influence the peace process," Peres told reporters.

Peres is reported, in 1994, to have promised the Vatican official status in Jerusalem.

In February 2000, the Vatican and the Palestinian Authority signed an agreement calling for an internationally guaranteed special status for Jerusalem. The agreement stated that a special statute would protect "equality before the law of the three monotheistic religions [in Jerusalem], the proper identity and sacred character of the city, [and] freedom of access" to the city's holy sites.

Israel objected, saying that freedom of religion is already protected throughout the country. It also opposed the Vatican's treatment of the PA as an independent country.

Shortly afterwards, Pope John Paul II visited Israel, and - unlike one of his predecessors, Pope Paul VI, who visited in 1964 - agreed to come to Jerusalem. Pope John Paul met with the Chief Rabbis in their Jerusalem offices, and visited Yad Vashem as well. Pope Paul, on the other hand, refused to visit Jerusalem, leading then-Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Nissim to boycott his visit altogether.

During his visit in 2000, Pope John Paul II conducted a prayer service in Bethlehem, and announced that the Vatican had always recognized the Palestinians' national rights to a homeland. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, Dean of Yeshivat Ateret Cohanim, said in response that the Pope's goal was simply to obtain a foothold in Jerusalem for the Church, and that his visit was one way the Pope hoped to reach this goal.

"If the Catholics would at least stop supporting the establishment of a Palestinian state in our land, and stop supporting the other Arab nations around us - then this could be considered a significant step," Rabbi Aviner said.

Pope John Paul II did not expressly apologize for the role played by the Church, and its silence, during the Holocaust. He said instead that the Church is "deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place... I fervently pray that our sorrow for the tragedy which the Jewish people suffered in the 20th century will lead to a new relationship between Christians and Jews. Let us build a new future in which there will be no more anti-Jewish feeling among Christians or anti-Christian feeling among Jews..."

Former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau has said that an earlier pope, Pope Pius XII, refused several requests by Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog to meet with him before and during the Holocaust to discuss how the Church could help save Jewish lives. After the war, too, Chief Rabbi Herzog asked for the Pope's assistance in locating Jewish orphans who were cared for by Catholic families, and again, the Pope refused.

The current pope has been following in the footsteps of his predecessor John Paul in trying to improve Jewish-Catholic relations.