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Benedict Visits Middle East in Closely-watched Pilgrimage

May 11, 2009 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Pope Benedict XVI launched the second leg of a closely-watched trip to the Middle East Monday with a visit to Israel's Holocaust memorial where he said victims of the genocide "lost their lives but they will never lose their names." National Catholic reporter John Allen describes the papal voyage.

RAY SUAREZ: And for the latest on today’s developments and the pope’s trip, we turn to John Allen, a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. He joins us from Jerusalem.

John, hasn’t the Vatican called for a two-state solution in the Middle East for a long time? What was different about this one? Why did it get so much attention?

JOHN ALLEN, National Catholic Reporter: Well, you’re absolutely right, Ray. The Vatican has actually called for a two-state solution since 1948, the foundation of the state of Israel and, of course, the first Arab-Israeli war. So in that sense, there was absolutely no advance whatsoever in the pope’s comments today at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport.

I think what was different was the context. The pope arrives in Israel when it has a new government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that has been sending ambivalent signals about its own commitment to Palestinian sovereignty to the two-state solution.

Of course, Benedict XVI made these comments in the presence of Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, and Netanyahu himself. I think it was the atmospherics, therefore, and in the political context of the region rather than the content of what the pope said that rang some bells.

Pope visits Holocaust Memorial

RAY SUAREZ: The pope also visited the Holocaust Memorial. Was that trip well-received? And given the rocky recent developments between Jewish and Roman Catholic groups over the Vatican's stance, were the right things said?

JOHN ALLEN: Well, as with so many things with the church in general and with this pope in particular, I think the answer is it depends upon whom you ask.

I think certainly the fact that Benedict XVI went to Yad Vashem in and of itself is going to be well-received broadly in Jewish circles and elsewhere. I think whenever a pope visits the Holocaust Memorial and commits himself to keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive, people think that has great humanitarian value.

Now, having said that, there has already been some criticism in Jewish circles, not so much for what the pope said, but for what he didn't say. In his address today at Yad Vashem, for example, there was no reference to Christian anti-Semitism, that is, to the way that certain currents of thought within Christianity over the centuries hostile to Judaism helped prepare the context in which the Holocaust was possible.

Further, there was no reference to what you alluded to a moment ago to the recent controversy involving Benedict XVI's decision to lift the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop, Bishop Richard Williamson, that badly frayed Catholic-Jewish ties. And I think some people were looking for some statement of regret from the pope on that episode.

And perhaps, most strikingly, there was no reference to the biographical context that Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, brought to the experience of visiting Yad Vashem. I mean, this is not only a German pope at Yad Vashem, but this is a pope who was briefly and involuntarily enrolled in the Hitler Youth.

He was drafted into the Wehrmacht, the German army, during the Second World War, eventually deserted and ended the war as a prisoner of war in an American POW camp, obviously, therefore, someone who had seen the horrors of that war, including the horrors of the Holocaust, through his own eyes.

I think collectively the fact that he didn't touch upon any of those points is likely to -- well, it's likely to mean that his speech today will play to mixed reviews, particularly in the Jewish community.

Controversy on canonization

RAY SUAREZ: Do tensions remain between the two religious groups over the possible canonization of Pope Pius XII, the wartime, Second World War-time leader of the Roman Catholic Church?

JOHN ALLEN: Yes, they do. And I think it's probably worth saying at the outset that it isn't just Jews who have raised questions about the appropriateness of beatifying or canonizing, in other words, making a saint of Pius XII. There are also some Catholic scholars and experts who have raised questions.

But in any event, yes, this remains a point of contention. And, in fact, when Benedict XVI visited the Yad Vashem memorial today, he did not go into the museum, which is connected to the memorial, in part because there is a large placard of Pius XII in that museum which is quite critical of his alleged silence during the war.

Now, it should be said that the Vatican and other defenders of Pius XII have long argued that this is a caricature of Pius XII's record, that, in fact, he did everything that could reasonably be expected that he would have done. They would credit him for saving countless thousands of Jews, in terms of both his public statements and also his behind-the-scenes actions.

But the point is that this does remain a live debate that continues to be an obstacle in Catholic-Jewish relations. Certainly, when and if the Vatican goes ahead with sainthood for Pius XII, it will create another serious, I think, strain in the relationship between these two faiths.

Reaching out to Muslims

RAY SUAREZ: Was this trip also a time for Pope Benedict XVI to extend the olive branch to Muslim leaders in the region?

JOHN ALLEN: Oh, it certainly was an opportunity for Benedict XVI to reach out to Muslims. In fact, one could make the argument that, as compared to John Paul II's celebrated trip to the Middle East in March of 2000, that considerably more time and attention is being devoted by Benedict XVI to the relationship with Islam on this trip.

He began with three days in Jordan. At least two of those days were almost entirely devoted to relations with Islam, including his visit to the Hussein bin-Talal mosque in Amman, what Westerners call the King Hussein mosque, only the third time that a pope has ever entered an Islamic mosque, but it was a repeated theme throughout those days and will be again here tomorrow in Jerusalem, when the pope becomes the first pope ever to visit the Dome of the Rock, one of the these holiest sites in Islam, the site from which Muslims believe Muhammad ascended into Heaven after his night journey here to Jerusalem. And he will have a meeting with the grand mufti of Jerusalem.

And all of this is, in part, I think, a recognition of simple arithmetic. There are 1.2 billion Catholics and 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. Collectively, that's over 40 percent of the human population. By definition, the relationship between these two groups matters.

But I think it's also a recognition that, as with Jews, Benedict XVI has also had problems with Muslims over the four years of his papacy. Almost three years ago, he gave a very famous -- now some would say infamous -- speech in Regensburg in Germany linking the Prophet Muhammad with violence, which caused a firestorm of protest in the Islamic world.

I think the Vatican was hoping that this trip and perhaps particularly his three days in Jordan would close the book on that episode and put Catholic-Muslim relations back on track.

RAY SUAREZ: John Allen joining us from Jerusalem, good to talk to you.

JOHN ALLEN: Thank you, Ray.