Pope Benedict XVI wound up his grueling week-long “Bridge for Peace” Middle East tour Friday morning, leaving behind disappointed Christians and Jews but satisfied Muslims and Palestinian Authority leaders.
He denounced the Holocaust in strong terms in his farewell speech, apparently in reaction to criticism that his comments at the Yad VaShem Holocaust Memorial Museum earlier this week were too bland.
He recalled his visit to the Auschwitz death camp three years ago, "where so many Jews - mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, friends - were brutally exterminated under a godless regime that propagated an ideology of anti-Semitism and hatred. That appalling chapter of history must never be forgotten."
The pope did not specifically refer to Germany or the Nazis, did not specifically condemn Holocaust deniers and did not make mention of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, despite Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s request to the pontiff on Thursday that he condemn statements calling for the eradication of Israel.
Pope Benedict called on all nations to recognize that the "State of Israel has the right to exist, and to enjoy peace and security within internationally agreed borders," while adding the same plea for a "two-state solution."
President Shimon Peres, in his farewell remarks, stated, "Today's political and spiritual leaders face a profound challenge: how to divorce religion from terror [and] how to prevent terrorists from hijacking the religious conscience by cloaking an act of terrorism in the false guise of a religious mission."
The pope's visit was the second papal pilgrimage to the Holy Land in recent years, following by nine years Pope John Paul II’s trip, which concluded several months before the outbreak of the great terror war known as the Oslo War, or the Second Intifada. Pope Paul VI visited in 1964.Pope Benedict was not in a great hurry to visit Israel, but the Vatican pushed him into the trip, the Canadian National Post stated. The pope wanted to make his trip contingent on Israel’s agreeing to turn over valuable property to the Vatican.
Israeli Christians, almost of them Arab, were astonished that the pope did not visit Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), which is a center of Christian tradition. This may have been because of security concerns: police revealed Friday morning that they had specific information of attempts to interrupt the papal entourage. The 3,000 faithful who attended an open-air mass in Jerusalem were outnumbered by security forces.
“Israeli security blamed the Arab organizers,” according to the National Post. “Local Christians blamed Israeli security. The routine is well known, but the result looks the same — Christians feeling as if they are left holding the short end of the stick.” The pope’s visits to two holy shrines in Jerusalem were relatively short, but he spent much more time with rabbis and Muslim clerics.
Yad VaShem Holocaust Museum Director Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, former Chief Rabbi of Israel and one of the most widely respected and popular rabbis ever to serve in that position, was openly critical of Benedict XVI. The German-born patriarch’s speech at Yad VaShem was charged with emotion but omitted specific references to Germany or the Nazi movement, of which he was a member in his youth.
The Vatican immediately defended the Pope, saying that he was an involuntary member of a Nazi squad that he left in order to enter the priesthood. Foreign media several times this week repeated, and often condemned, criticism of the speech by rabbis as well as by Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud).
However, the media, and the pope himself, played down or ignored a tirade by a Muslim cleric in the pope’s presence Monday night. Sheikh Tayseer al-Tamimi, a senior religious leader in the Palestinian Authority, accused Israel of "murdering women and children [and] destroying mosques and Palestinian cities."
Media dutifully reported the outburst and then dropped the subject but continued to refer to rabbis’ criticism of the pope. A rare exception was Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, a popular American journalist and author.
He commented in the Washington Post, “Without debating either the accuracy of his claims or the sincerity with which he [Tamimi] spoke, the Sheikh's behavior points to his lack of desire for peace or even reconciliation. His behavior points only to his desire to enlist the Pope in his own version of events.
“But more disturbing than the Sheikh's boorish behavior is that this is the man the Palestinian Authority would send to this important meeting. Is this the best that they can do? Is this really the message that they want to send?”
The Pope‘s Pro-PA Speech
Despite the outburst by the PA Muslim cleric, the pope rallied behind PA demands for a new Arab state in Judea and Samaria -- on the land that Jordan occupied from 1948 to 1967. During that time, Jordan prohibited Christians and Jews from entering holy sites.
He implicitly backed the PA demand that millions of foreign Arabs be allowed to immigrate to Israel based on their being descendants of approximately 700,000 Arabs who fled the Jewish state while the Arab world fought to annihilate it in 1948.
Pope Benedict also held 'interfaith' talks with Muslims, in a sharp reversal from Vatican statements last year that ruled out theological discussions between Muslims and Christians. He took off his shoes and entered the Al Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount the morning after Sheikh Tamimi’s harangue.
The pope stated, “One God is the infinite source of justice and mercy.” This was a reference to the Common Word appeal by Muslim scholars for a Christian-Muslim dialogue based on the two shared principles of love of the Almighty and love of one's neighbors, according to religion blogger Tom Heneghan. However, the blogger's research noted one glaring flaw.
“After noticing the echo of the Common Word appeal in Benedict’s address, I checked to see whether his Muslim hosts were signatories of the document,” he wrote. “They weren’t. In fact, the only Palestinian I could find who has signed it is Sheikh Taysir al-Tamimi, the head of the Islamic courts in the Palestinian territories,” and the same cleric who railed out against Israel on Monday night.