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Israeli sources expect papal visit to be quiet and uneventful

Tourists gather at the church of Nativity, taking pictures with a poster of Pope Francis in the background on May 20 in Bethlehem, West Bank. Pope Francis is due to make his first visit to the Holy Land as pontiff on May 24
Tourists gather at the church of Nativity, taking pictures with a poster of Pope Francis in the background on May 20 in Bethlehem, West Bank. Pope Francis is due to make his first visit to the Holy Land as pontiff on May 24
Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images

On Wednesday, May 21 Anshel Pfeffer of Haaretz reported that officials in Israel's government expect Pope Francis's three-day tour of the holy land that is scheduled to begin on Saturday, May 24 to be extremely low-key and free of controversy in spite of recent reports of anti-Christian unrest that may have been caused by Jewish extremists that appeared in Time and other sources. The pope will meet with Israel's president Shimon Peres, the Orthodox church's ecumenical patriarch Bartholomew I, and other important religious and political leaders, but his trip is being described more like a fun vacation than a significant event.

According to Pfeffer, "Papal visits are always important. The spiritual leader of the world’s largest established religion commands the allegiance of a great number of people, to a degree like no other mere head of state. But despite all the hype surrounding next week’s visit, it’s actual significance − and especially its effect on Jewish-Christian ties − will most likely be minimal. That’s actually a good thing. The relationship between Rome and the Jews has never been as harmonious at any period in history as it is today. Disputes over taxation and sovereignty of church property notwithstanding, there is no burning crisis or festering problem that needs Francis’ urgent intervention.

"In keeping with the unassuming conduct and humble demeanor that has transformed this pope into a media superstar, he isn’t arriving with any promises to bring peace to the war-weary region, which is probably a sensible idea, seeing that religious leaders hardly have a shining record in that particular Mideast department. He’s actually doing everything to lower expectations, cutting down the length of his stay in Israel proper to just about 27 hours, the bare minimum of a state visit along with the essential meetings with ecumenical leaders and tour of the main religious sites. That’s it.

"And when coupled with a whirlwind stop in Jordan and just six hours in Bethlehem with the Palestinian Authority, including a medium-sized public mass (by papal standards, 10,000 in Bethlehem's Manger Square is trifling), you get the impression that Francis and his entourage are approaching their journey to the Holy Land like traversing a minefield − to get through as quickly as possible with minimal casualties."

In a special report for USA Today, Michele Chabin reported on Wednesday, May 21 that the pope will be traveling with his friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka. They will visit several sites that have special meanings for Jews and Christians while they are in Israel. They will also be meeting with another friend who will help represent the Muslim faith.

According to Chabin, "The pope and the rabbi will be joined on their pilgrimage by another good friend, Islamic studies professor Omar Abboud, who is expected to accompany the pope to the Al Aqsa mosque complex, where they will meet the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.

"Skorka said he probably will not visit the mosque itself because it is located on the Temple Mount (what Arabs call the Haram al-Sharif), the most sacred place in Judaism — a venue many Jews consider too holy to visit. The rabbi believes the pope's decision to bring along his two old friends 'is perhaps a sign he wants to show the world that it is possible to work together and hold a dialogue. He is a man who breaks the status quo.' Despite being of different faiths, he said, 'we share many spiritual attitudes. Maybe we can dial down the level of hate' in the Middle East."

Pope Francis and Skorka will be visiting other sites such as the grave of Zionist leader Theodor Herzl, the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and the Western Wall. The pope's itinerary also includes a private visit to the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the church of Gethsemane near the Mount of Olives. His schedule includes a nice mix of important work, such as meeting with Syrian refugees or visiting the king and queen of Jordan with activities that are similar to the types of things ordinary Christians do when they tour Israel with groups from their churches, suggesting that Pfeffer's assessment of the visit may be fairly accurate.

However, the visit won't be all about mixing the pope's duties with stuff that would sound pretty fun to believers who have been to Israel before. Chabin said Skorka sees the visit as a chance for Jews and Muslims in Israel to become closer to the pope.

According to Chabin, "Skorka, the rector of the Latin American rabbinic seminary in Buenos Aires, told journalists at the Jerusalem Press Club that he hopes Israelis, many of whom have a deep mistrust of the Roman Catholic Church after centuries of Jewish persecution, will welcome the pope 'with open arms.'

"Despite the pope's strong ties to the Argentine Jewish community and appreciation for Judaism, which he cultivated during his years as the amicable archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis will maintain a policy of 'total balance' when it comes to Israelis and Palestinians, the rabbi predicted."

Pfeffer's description of the pope's visit seems unfair in some ways. After all, Pope Francis will be spreading good will among people who have been affected by violence in the Middle East and reaching out to leaders of the Orthodox church to try to heal a rift that goes back to 1054 A.D. It might be wise, though, to remain cautiously optimistic about how much the pope can actually achieve while he travels in the Holy Land. He might be able to win some hearts and minds as he meets with people from several levels of society, but it is unlikely that he could singlehandedly bring about peace in the Middle East or do much to resolve the issues between Jews, Christians and Muslims that continue to make Israel a volatile place at times.

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