Fourteen Austrian Catholic bishops visiting Jerusalem last week were barred from approaching the Old City's Western Wall (the Kotel) after refusing to remove crucifixes they were wearing as part of their formal attire. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, responsible
The group subsequently canceled a planned meeting with Rabbi Rabinovitch.
for the Western Wall and other Jewish holy sites, explained to the bishops that they were welcome to pray at the Kotel, but had to remove their crosses in order not to offend the sensitivities of Jews there.
The bishops, including the Archbishop of Vienna, opted to remain outside the barrier separating the prayer area from the rest of the Western Wall Plaza rather than remove their crosses. The group subsequently canceled a planned meeting with Rabbi Rabinovitch that was to take place in his Jerusalem office. Austrian officials said that the ban on crosses at the Wall was not made known to the Catholic delegation ahead of their arrival for the Austrian Bishops Conference, which was held in Israel for the first time last week.
Speaking with the Israeli Maariv newspaper, Rabbi Rabinovitch said, "Appearing like that at the Wall and to a meeting with me is insulting and provocative." Rabinovitch claimed that previous Catholic delegations, including that of Pope John Paul II in 2000, refrained from displaying the cross while at the Kotel. While official government publications describing appropriate dress and conduct for the Western Wall area do not include any mention of a ban on crucifixes, Christian pilgrimage tour leaders have in the past suggested that those wearing crosses place them inside their shirts to avoid unnecessary confrontation.
The Kotel is an ancient retaining wall of the Temple Mount compound, where the First and Second Temples stood. The Western Wall is the only remnant of the Second Temple still in use after the Roman legions conquered, destroyed and plowed under the holy site in 70 CE.
After viewing the Kotel, the Austrian bishops visited Israel's main Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, also in Jerusalem. At the museum, the Viennese Archbishop said that his group acceded to the request not to approach the Wall wearing their crosses "out of respect for the religious sensitivities of the Jews."