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2000-03-29 00:20
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Pope John Paul retraces Jesus' footsteps
ENI-00-0102

By Ross Dunn
Jerusalem, 22 March (ENI)--Pope John Paul II today realises the
start of a long-held dream - to retrace the footsteps of Jesus.

The pontiff, who arrived in Israel from Jordan last night
(Tuesday) on the first visit by a pope to the Holy Land in 36
years, hopes that his spiritual pilgrimage will help to heal the
divisions between Arabs and Jews. He will visit the traditional
sites of Christ's path from birth through to baptism, crucifixion
and resurrection.

His tour of the holiest sites in Christianity is part of the
Vatican's celebrations for the 2000th anniversary of the birth of
Jesus. But in the volatile Middle East, where religion, history
and politics are deeply entwined, Arabs and Jews will analyse the
Pope's every word in search of nuances and political
implications.

No one knows this better than the Pope himself, who in the
1960s, as an archbishop, spent 10 days touring the Holy Land. His
diary reveals that the Holy Land both inspired and disturbed him
as he witnessed the religious and political disputes which have
scarred the land where Jesus was born.

Not wishing to exacerbate the conflict further, the Pope's tour
is a finely balanced affair, including a trip to a Palestinian
refugee camp near Bethlehem, as well as meetings with Israeli and
Palestinian politicians, priests, rabbis, and Islamic leaders.


The pontiff is expected to express solidarity with the small
indigenous population of Arab Christians here. But he is also
expected to adopt a much more conciliatory attitude to Israel
than that displayed by Pope Paul VI who made a brief visit to
Israel in 1964, but declined to meet the country's chief rabbi
and never mentioned the word "Israel". (The Vatican officially
recognised the state of Israel in 1993.)

Pope John Paul hopes to wipe away much of the historical
bitterness between his church and the Jews when he visits the
Western Wall - the only surviving part of the Second Temple of
Jerusalem and one of Judaism's holiest sites - and speaks at Yad
Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

Despite the Pope's wish to build bridges, members of the
ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities here resent his visit. In some
of Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods, signs have been put
up describing the Pope as "the evil one".

Rabbi Aharon Feldman, director of an ultra-Orthodox religious
school in Jerusalem, called on the pontiff to remove his cross
and any other Christian religious symbols when he visits sites
sacred to Jews. "The wall is a synagogue. And I think that he
should have the cross removed because it is a symbol of another
religion, and it has no place in a synagogue," he told ENI.

But the highest-ranking Vatican official in the Holy Land, Latin
Patriarch Michel Sabbah, who is of Palestinian origin, said he
hoped John Paul's message of peace and reconciliation would be
heard above the cries of protest. "We hope that our political
leaders will hear the spiritual message, and will have more
courage to achieve justice and peace in this land and in the
whole region," he said. "We hope that God will hear our prayers
in those days, will hear the prayers of all people of good will
of the three religions in this land [Judaism, Christianity and
Islam] who pray in humility and in the silence of their hearts,
and who will join their prayers to those of the Pope - may God
bestow on this land justice and reconciliation."

Haim Ramon, the Israeli cabinet minister in charge of the Pope's
visit, also called on Jews and Arabs to listen to the pontiff's
message of peace. He told ENI the event should not be manipulated
by either side in order to score political points and risk
sparking a violent confrontation.

"By doing this, [those trying to score political points] they
will take this important visit from a reconciliation visit to a
conflict visit, from a peace visit to a violent one," Ramon said.
"This is what they will achieve - not more than that."