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Pope Francis will highlight the progress in Catholic-Jewish relations by traveling with Argentinian rabbi Abraham Skorka, and will build ties with Muslims by having an Islamic scholar accompany him. But the main focus will be on internal Christian relations.
The Jerusalem visit was organized in honor of the 50th anniversary of the meeting in Jerusalem between Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, a turning point in relations between the Vatican and the Orthodox churches, which the patriarch leads. The pope’s emphasis is on his three meetings with the current patriarch, Bartholomew. His trip will be less public and involve fewer opportunities for rank-and-file Catholics to see their leader than the two recent papal visits.
“In 2000, when John Paul came, it was a pilgrimage during which he met local people, whereas in 2009 it was labeled a pastoral visit with an effort [by Pope Benedict] to meet the local people,” said Father Athanasius, a high-ranking Jerusalem-based Franciscan cleric. “The main thing this time will be his meetings [with the Orthodox Christians].”
But with the Catholic establishment in Jerusalem already vocal on the recent spate of “price tag” attacks — acts of vandalism carried out by far-right Jews on churches and other Christian sites in Israel — it is believed that Pope Francis will probably weigh in on the phenomenon. The Vatican’s Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem condemned the attacks on May 11, saying they “poison the atmosphere” ahead of the pope’s visit, and questioned Israel’s commitment to bringing the perpetrators to justice.
Hebrew-language death threats scrawled on Christian sites are not the only thing raising hackles on the ground. Also adding to the tension is the fact that Jerusalem municipal officials have asked a Franciscan center in the Old City to take down banners welcoming the pope during his trip — even though, as the Latin Patriarchate pointed out, it is common practice around the world to put up such banners ahead of a papal visit.
Some expert observers further say that Pope Francis won’t be able to resist some kind of postmortem for the peace process. Yvonne Friedman, an expert in Jewish-Christian relations at Bar Ilan University, is “almost sure” that the pope will directly or indirectly pin the blame on Israel for the collapse of negotiations. But Neuhaus played down the speculation. “I don’t think the pope is coming to teach anyone a lesson,” he said. “He’s not going to blame anyone.”
Meanwhile, some Israeli rightists are more concerned with negotiations over territory than with blame or banners. On May 12, around 200 Orthodox Jews demonstrated on Mount Zion in Jerusalem against a deal — rumored to be sealed during the papal visit — that would give Catholics increased rights on the mount or even place it under the Vatican’s sovereignty.
Christians believe that Mount Zion was the site of the Last Supper, and on May 26 the pope will hold a mass in the room where this event supposedly took place. The Vatican claims that it should be able to hold more ceremonies there than it is currently permitted. The Cenacle room lies above what Jews believe to be the tomb of King David, and many Israeli Jews, especially on the right, are opposed to any increased Catholic control there.
Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has denied that a deal with the Vatican over Mount Zion is in the works. But the fact that Israel’s President Shimon Peres reportedly said a year ago that a compromise had nearly been reached, and that this is the most high-profile Vatican-Israel meeting since, is keeping the rumor alive.
Friedman thinks that the Mount Zion issue is “bound to be part of the trip” and that the visit may present an opportunity for an already agreed-upon deal to finally be made public. “Whatever has been decided, they have kept secret,” she said.
Contact Nathan Jeffay at firstname.lastname@example.org