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Reflections on Pope's Holy Land tour

Pope Benedict is ending an eight-day tour of the Holy Land. BBC Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen assesses from Jerusalem what has been a highly eventful visit.

Crowd at Nazareth
Christians in the Holy land face many problems, but vast crowds turned out to see the Pope in Nazareth

By far the biggest event of Pope Benedict XVI's tour was the papal Mass in Nazareth. The amplified sounds of music and chanting from tens of thousands of the faithful drifted through the morning haze and right across the town.

The worshippers were in a natural amphitheatre on the side of Mount Precipice, where the Bible says Jesus escaped an angry mob who wanted to throw him off a cliff.

Nazareth, like all the other places the Pope has been, was locked down by the security forces. A few residents looked less than impressed with what was happening. A man at a breakfast stall, his beard cut in the style of a devout Sunni Muslim, got on with his job, serving policemen - who were mainly Jews.

The Pope is the spiritual leader of more than one billion Catholics around the world. He does not have the easy charisma of his predecessor, John Paul II, but in Nazareth that did not seem to matter.

Palestinian and Israeli views on the Pope's Holy Land visit

He's the Pope, and they came to see him and receive his blessing.

Other celebrations of the Mass, especially the one in Jerusalem, had smaller turn-outs and illustrated starkly the crisis Christianity faces in the Holy Land.

Christian Arabs are emigrating, and those in the Palestinian territories say the main reason is the difficulty of life under Israeli occupation.

But the Pope's messages - delivered in more than 20 speeches - were not just aimed at Catholics.

The success or failure of his tour also has to be measured by the impression he made on Jews and Muslims.

He tried to deal with some of the baggage of the past - and some of the mistakes that have been made during his papacy. He had a degree of success, but he left some of the people who heard him feeling unsatisfied.

Demands for apology

In Jordan, on the first full day of the tour, Pope Benedict spoke at the King Hussein mosque, a monumental structure that dominates a hill on the edge of Amman.

Some local Muslims were demanding an apology for a lecture in 2006, in which they had detected a message that their faith was violent and irrational.

Former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and the Pope
The Pope's speech at Yad Vashem left many Jewish listeners dissatisfied

Benedict did not say sorry. But his host at the mosque, a Jordanian Prince, publicly accepted an apology that he had made soon after the lecture. That won't do the trick for everyone, especially those Muslims who blame Christian powers for much of what has gone wrong in this part of the world.

But the Pope's supporters will be hoping that by visiting Muslim holy sites - he was the first pontiff to go to the great compound of al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem - he will have improved the overall tone of relations between the Catholic Church and some at least of Islam's believers.

The Pope wanted the journey to be a pilgrimage. Every day, though, presented a series of political tests that he either had to pass or find a way to avoid. Delicate political navigation was required, especially in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories where the two sides did all that they could to extract political advantage from his presence.

Pope Benedict's most difficult day was his first in Israel. He faced a Jewish audience that went from sceptical to downright hostile.

Actions taken by Benedict as Pope have piled fresh resentments on top of centuries of mutual suspicion between Jews and the Church.

One of the first sentences the Pope uttered in Israel was an unequivocal condemnation of anti-Semitism. That pleased Jews in Israel and abroad.

The Pope on the West Bank
Speaking close to the West Bank barrier the pope called for a Palestinian homeland

But when he made an emotional speech at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Memorial a few hours later, some felt he did not say enough.

Criticism

They wanted him to express more contrition, as a German who was conscripted into the Hitler Youth during World War II.

At the Auschwitz concentration camp in 2006, the Pope had said, "To speak in this place of horror, in this place where unprecedented mass crimes were committed against God and man is almost impossible - and it is particularly difficult and troubling for a Christian, for a Pope from Germany."

If he had used similar words at Yad Vashem, he might have headed off a lot of criticism in the Israeli press.

Palestinians were much more pleased with the Pope. He drove into Bethlehem through the 25 foot high concrete wall that Israel built to separate it from Jerusalem, and told them almost everything they were hoping to hear, from calling for a Palestinian state to lifting the embargo on Gaza.

Even so, he was criticised for not going to Gaza itself, and for calling on Palestinians not to use violence.

He repeated the message about violence and called for reconciliation wherever he went.

Benedict knows that is not going to calm the Middle East, which is why he wants international intervention to help create peace.

In the end, the Pope could never hope to satisfy everyone. But his Middle East tour has shown that the papacy, even though it has no battalions, is indeed a player.



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