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Backgound: Journey to the Holy Land

March 23, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Of all of the historic stops on Pope John Paul II’s trip this week, his visit today to the Holocaust memorial known as Yad Vashem had been one of the most widely anticipated. And it was also one of the most personal for the 79-year-old pontiff. At a solemn ceremony, the Pope spoke eloquently of the Church’s sorrow for the victims of the Holocaust. But he stopped short of apologizing for the Church’s silence at the time.

POPE JOHN PAUL II: We wish to remember for a purpose, namely to ensure that never again will evil prevail as it did for the millions of victims of Nazism. How could man have such utter contempt for man?

RAY SUAREZ: The Pope’s visit, which was carried live on Israeli television, had been widely watched as the latest attempt on his long crusade to heal the rift between Jews and Christians. And his words today were praised by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and many Holocaust survivors.

ELI ZBROWSKI, Holocaust Survivor: What the Pope did, this Pope, is a turning point in history, and we appreciate that. And I’m sure that the majority of the Jewish people in Israel and throughout the world appreciate that, and are thankful to the Pope.

RAY SUAREZ: But others said the Pope did not go far enough in accounting for Pope Pius XII’s silence during World War II.

MEIR LAU, Chief Rabbi, Israel: This apology was quite fine. But for educational reasons I was expecting condemnation of the silence of the world, especially of the Church, and especially Pius XII, who had to say more and to do more in order to save innocent lives who were victims of the Holocaust. If he would say a word, I don’t believe there would be six million Jewish victims.

RAY SUAREZ: Today’s stop at Yad Vashem and Jerusalem was the latest on a six-day trip that includes stops in Jordan and the Palestinian territories. The Vatican has insisted this week’s events are primarily a religious pilgrimage devoted to following in Jesus’ footsteps during what’s being observed as the 2,000th anniversary of his birth. But the trip has been caught up in the vortex of Middle East politics, making it one of the most sensitive of his papacy. During a stop yesterday at a Palestinian refugee camp on the West Bank, the Pope said he was concerned about the plight of the more than three million Palestinians. With Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in attendance, he also called again for a Palestinian homeland.

POPE JOHN PAUL II: The Holy See has always recognized that the Palestinian people have the natural right to a homeland and the right to be able to live in peace and tranquility with the other peoples of this area. Your tolerance is before the rest of the world.

RAY SUAREZ: And Chairman Arafat was pleased with the Pope’s statements.

YASSER ARAFAT (Translated): The Palestinian people value highly your principled position in support of their causes and their rightful presence in their homeland as a sovereign and independent people.

RAY SUAREZ: The Pontiff has particularly looked forward to this millennial visit first planned more than five years ago. Just 2% of the population in the Holy Land are Christians, but more than 60,000 pilgrims flew in from around the world to see him and attend the Masses.

POPE JOHN PAUL II: This year, of the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ, it has been my strong personal desire to come here and to pray in the most important places, which from ancient times have seen God’s intervention, the wonders He has done.

RAY SUAREZ: The turnout on the streets has been enormous for his Masses, like this one in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, the site of Jesus’ birth. John Paul’s trip has also taken him to numerous sites of significant religious importance for Christians, Muslims and Jews. Yesterday he conducted a special Mass for clergy after visiting a grotto at Mount Zion, believed to be the site of Jesus’ Last Supper. Today, he saw the old city of Jerusalem. The Pope will wrap up his visit with a visit to Nazareth and the Western Wall.