Pope's visit to the Holy Land sparks jostling for limelight

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It still draws winces among those old enough to remember. It was January 1964, when the centuries-old hostility between the Vatican and the Jews was finally beginning to melt. Pope Paul VI slipped into Israel, for a personal glimpse of the land of the Bible.

His visit was furtive and fleeting. The pontiff entered via the Jordanian West Bank, and met the then Israeli President, Zalman Shazar, not in the divided city of Jerusalem but at Megiddo in northern Israel, the biblical setting for Armageddon.

To intense Israeli annoyance, Paul VI went out of his way to make clear that he was not recognising Israeli statehood, pointedly refusing to use the term "Mr President". He spent less then 24 hours in the country, and avoided visiting any government offices. Nearly 30 years would elapse before the Vatican and Israel finally opened full diplomatic relations.

The contrast could scarcely be greater. This week, after briefly visiting Jordan, John Paul II will become the first pope officially to visit Israel in its 52-year history as a modern state. His visit, which includes a day in and around Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem, is littered with political perils; he comes with the baggage of inter-faith conflict that stretches from before the Crusades to the Holocaust.

But the Jewish state sees his visit as extremely important - concrete recognition from the world's largest Christian church after decades of ambivalence - and it is doing everything it can to advertise that fact. It is determined to publicise the occasion, mostly for its own sake but also to drown out any claims of sovereignty that the Pope's visit, which begins on Tuesday, may also draw from the Palestinians.

Israel is also determined nothing should go wrong. As the Pope flies around in an Israeli Air Force Black Hawk helicopter and glides around the holy sites in his popemobile, he will be trailed by the largest VIP security operation in the country's history. Many thousands of police and undercover agents are involved. Israel is calling it, somewhat disingenuously, "Operation Old Friend".

The Barak government has been spending generously on preparations, including organising seminars attempting to convince thousands of journalists - and through them, public opinion - that the visit is a landmark in a 40-year process of reconciliation between Jews and the Roman Catholic Church.

Orders have gone out to Israeli schools to teach pupils about the Pope during his trip, a recognition that Israelis do not generally know much about the Catholic faith. Until now, little has been taught in schools, beyond the church's generally dismal role in the persecution of Jews over the centuries.

Although posters have recently appeared in the ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods denouncing the pontiff as "wicked", the average secular Israeli is only vaguely aware of the man. John Paul II is a distant and doddery media star, the leader of a foreign faith. Israeli Jews do not usually meet many Catholics; there are, at most, 40,000 in Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Christianity tends to be associated with Arabs.

But the outcome of the Pope's trip will hinge on one principal question: will he submit to Jewish pressure (at least from some quarters) to explicitly ask forgiveness for the Catholic Church's conduct during the Holocaust (when Pope Pius XII remained silent)? John Paul II's previous expressions of regret (but not of church culpability) and his strong condemnations of anti-Semitism do not appear to have registered with most Israelis.

The visit may go some way to changing that. Preparations have been lavish. A giant gravel arena has been created at the foot of the Mount of Beatitudes, where the New Testament says Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount, in readiness for a huge mass on Friday. After all, the 79-year-old pontiff is a former actor, a master self-publicist under whose mitre lurks a Spielbergian genius for visual imagery.

But the battle for limelight will be intense. Yasser Arafat, who is meeting the Pope on Wednesday, will want to reinforce claims for Palestinian statehood. And the Israelis will do their best to see that they dominate the show - exclusively.