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Category: Pope in Mideast

ISRAEL: The pope's gifts--taking stock

MapPope Benedict XVI was presented with a great many gifts during his visit to the Holy Land. Careful thought had gone into each to ensure the token carried the desired message: religious, political, national and other.

Here's a (partial) list of what the pope left Israel and the West Bank with: 

  • Nano-Bible: the whole Bible --all 1.2 million letters and 300,000 words-- engraved on a silicon chip the size of a grain of sand by researchers at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.
  • Painting: "Camp Synagogue," by Felix Nussbaum, a Jewish artist who perished in Auschwitz.
  • Ancient lamp: a 1,500-year-old menorah, a rare antique lamp, gift of the Jewish National Fund, which had worked for weeks to prepare the site of the Mass at Mt. Precipice near Nazareth. Sculpture 
  • Covenant to save lives: Magen David Adom, Israel's largest medical organization, conceived a covenant addressing the highest religious value of all, saving lives, from an interfaith perspective. Written and signed by distinguished Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders.
  • Ancient map: a framed copy of Heinrich Bunting's famous 16th century depiction of Jerusalem as the center of the clover leaf-shaped Old World, presented by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat upon welcoming Benedict to Jerusalem.
  • The Gospel of Luke: a volume of 65 poster-size pages written in ornate Arabic script by a Bethlehem artist of Islamic calligraphy. The Bethlehem mayor commissioned the Muslim Yasser Abu Saymeh for the project, a message of religious coexistence that took two months to complete. 

    Bronze sculpture (right): Jerusalem artist Aharon Bezalel's sculpture designed of 10 bronze figures welded together, the tallest three engraved with a cross, moon and menorah in a sign of religious coexistence. This completes a circle for the artist, who had met with Pope John Paul II and presented him with a sculpture honoring the memory of the Holocaust. It is on display in the Vatican. 

A few of the gifts combined ancient and modern, some were an interfaith statement, and others yet hinted at political issues, such as the sash that was given to him when he visited a West Bank refugee camp; it was embroidered with a key--a symbol of Palestinian refugees' desire to return to their homes, now in Israel.

Pope Benedict brought some gifts with him too, such as the ventilator for a children's hospital and a mosaic representation of the birth of Jesus he presented to Bethlehem. And, he left a note in the Western Wall.

But some people wanted the pope to return some stuff too.

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ISRAEL: Atittudes toward Christians

Jewish Israelis are very diverse. In a nation whose immigrants come from countries and cultures far and wide, pluralism often refers to tolerance among different cultural groups of Jews.

But diversity discourse in Israel differs considerably when it comes to interaction with non-Jewish groups. Rival historic, religious and national narratives make real diversity a tough principle to practice.  

Most Christians in Israel are Arabs, a minority within a minority squeezed between different layers of conflict. Christians account for 2.1% of the population. Israel's non-Arab Christians are mainly immigrants from the former Soviet Union, foreign workers, resident clergy and even Catholic Jews. And Jewish Israelis don't quite know how to perceive any of them -- for cultural, national and religious reasons.

Fifty-two percent of Jewish Israelis have no Christian friends or acquaintances, but almost 100% of them have opinions about them. A recent poll surveyed attitudes among the adult Jewish population toward Christians, Christianity and the Christian presence in Israel. The results of the survey, carried out by the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations (JCJCR) and the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies (JIIS), shed light on how Jewish Israelis perceive Christians and what they know about them, or think they do know.

Generally, most answers showed that the higher the level of religious observance, the more negative the attitude toward Christians. Such attitudes also were seen the lower the level of age, income and education. The following numbers mostly refer to the overall sample, but keep in mind the observance breakdown of the respondents: 23% Orthodox, 24% traditional and 53% secular.

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ISRAEL: The Holy Seat


An honorary stage had waited for the pope at the end of the red carpet when he landed in Israel on Monday. Atop the carpeted platform, four specially crafted wooden armchairs with white upholstery awaited the  main dignitaries.

The preparation and construction of the stage had been carried out by the Defense Ministry, which these day is fighting to save its (many) pennies from the inevitable budget cuts. But Israelis are nothing if not creative thinkers, and it looks like the pope himself might be making a handsome, if indirect, contribution to the Defense Ministry's plate, which plans to auction off the chairs. 

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ISRAEL: High hopes for Christian pilgrims

Catholicism's No. 1 Pilgrim is visiting the Holy Land this week,
and Israeli authorities hope a Welcome successful, smooth visit will bear not only
diplomatic but also economic fruit.

The holy sites are part of Israel's landscape, but so are the politics that encourage tourists or deter them. Israel's tourism industry expands and contracts frequently depending on the situation, impacting the economy. And it's flexible only to a point.

Pope John Paul II's visit in the jubilee year was a promising beginning for Holy Land tourism in the new millennium. But the growth spurt was short-lived, as the second intifada, or uprising, that erupted in October that year rendered Israel a dangerous and controversial destination. The new hotels built with pilgrims in mind stood empty, and the industry went into a two-year slump that left 40 hotels closed and 80,000 people unemployed.

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ISRAEL: Pope gets a glimpse of competing claims to Jerusalem

Pope Benedict XVI’s arrival in Jerusalem set off a scramble among Israelis and Palestinians to demonstrate their claims to the city, an issue on which the Vatican is neutral; it favors an international protectorate in the city to safeguard the sites holy to Christians, Muslims and Jews

Benedict landed by helicopter Monday in East Jerusalem to a ceremonial greeting staged by Mayor Nir Barkat to emphasize Israel's control over the entire city. In Hebrew, he welcomed the pope to "the capital of Israel," a status that does not have international recognition. His remarks in English omitted that label.

As dozens of Christian, Jewish and Muslim schoolchildren cheered and waved at the helipad on Mount Scopus, loudspeakers played "Jerusalem of Gold," a song commemorating Israel's capture of East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East War.

Benedict did not speak at the ceremony. But he accepted Barkat's gift of an etching that reproduced an ancient map depicting Jerusalem at the center of the world.

For its part, the Palestinian Authority, which wants East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, set up a media center in a hotel in the city’s eastern part for journalists covering the pope's pilgrimage. Israeli police, empowered by law to ban Palestinian Authority gatherings in the city, closed down the center and seized media material as Palestinian officials were about to begin a news conference.

Later, at a gathering of participants in an interfaith forum, a Palestinian Muslim cleric commandeered the microphone and made an unscheduled speech denouncing Israel. He began by welcoming the pope to “Jerusalem, the eternal capital of Palestine.”

— Richard Boudreaux in Jerusalem

Full coverage: Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

ISRAEL: Pope meets Holocaust survivors


They stood on different sides of Yad Vashem's Hall of Remembrance. Six Jews and a friend standing shoulder to shoulder on one side; on the other, a German man. None are young. Between them is a black floor, and on it names. Buchenwald. Jasenovac. Sobibor. Auschwitz. Maunthausen.

Their faces looked strong, their features clear, eyes were dry. That seemed to change later. Here and there, a closer look revealed a discreet hearing aid, a walking cane.

A few minutes later, Pope Benedict XVI crossed the stone floor to meet six holocaust survivors -- each representing an unfathomable million -- and one righteous gentile too. He shook their hands, lingered a short while with each as they were introduced. As their names and stories were read aloud, the survivors exchanged barely audible words with the visitor.

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JORDAN: Bedouins, prophets and a pope

Pope Benedict XVI Bedouin tents were tugged tight against the wind, and camels, unbridled, sat in fields and tall grass. An image from the Bible, or perhaps the Koran, unchanged, except for the paved road, the hum of cars and the yellow and white flags for the pope, who to the Bedouins was the leader of a tribe less ancient than their own.

So many prophets have walked these hills: John the Baptist ate honey and grasshoppers and cleansed souls in the River Jordan; Moses glimpsed the Promised Land from Mount Nebo; others -- forgotten revolutionaries, madmen and mystics -- mixed the divine with warnings of the apocalypse. Jesus was crucified across the border.

And now Benedict XVI, dressed in starched white vestments, his hair the color of salt, was coming to bless the foundation for the University of Madaba. The Bedouins did not know this; their world is less grand. They lighted their fires, let the entourage and commotion pass – flying colors and flashing lights in the distance.

But there was Atef Kawar, the contractor on the 500,000-square-meter university construction site. A stout man in a pinstriped shirt, the breeze making a ruckus in his hair, Kawar slipped into a gazebo, where the roar of Dust Busters scoured the seats for the papal audience. An architect’s model of the university sat under glass. When the campus is finished in a few years, these grazing lands and wheat fields will be changed.

Man is splendid in his audacity to bend the land to fit his dreams. Kawar knows this, yet as much as he is a man of brick, stone and mortar, he has no need for a church.

“I am a Catholic, occasionally,” he said. “I don’t go to church. I don’t pray in a building. I told my priest this and he said, ‘Why don’t you come to church more often?’ What to do there? I pray in my heart.”

He left the gazebo and went to his workers, who were putting up a banner for the pope, while beyond gusts rattled Bedouin tents and children darted along the tree-line at the edge of the fields that rolled and stretched to the far-away hills.

— Jeffrey Fleishman in Madaba, Jordan

Full coverage: Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

Photo: Pope Benedict XVI. Credit: Reuters

JORDAN: The Pope's Sunday homily

Radio Vaticana has published an English version of the homily given by Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday morning in Amman, Jordan. He addressed a crowd of 20,000 during an open-air mass at a sports stadium. Today is his last day in Jordan.

Pope Benedict XVI waves to worshipers on his arrival to celebrate a Mass at a stadium in Amman, Jordan, Sunday, May 10, 2009. Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday urged Middle East Christians to persevere in their faith despite hardships threatening the existence of their ancient communities. Pope Benedict XVI is on a week long tour in the Middle East that includes Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories. (Nader Daoud / Associated Press) "Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

I rejoice that we are able to celebrate this Eucharist together at the beginning of my Pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Yesterday, from the heights of Mount Nebo, I stood and looked out upon this great land, the land of Moses, Elijah, and John the Baptist, the land where God’s ancient promises were fulfilled in the coming of the Messiah, Jesus our Lord. This land witnessed his preaching and miracles, his death and resurrection, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church, the sacrament of a reconciled and renewed humanity. As I pondered the mystery of God’s fidelity, I prayed that the Church in these lands would be confirmed in hope and strengthened in her witness to the Risen Christ, the Savior of mankind. Truly, as Saint Peter tells us in today’s first reading, “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we are to be saved” (Acts 4:12).
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JORDAN: Pope's pilgrimage in Moses' footsteps

Pope Benedict XVI prays close to the Antique Basilica and Moses Memorial on Mt. Nebo, where the Bible says Moses saw the Promised Land. The pope's visit to Mount Nebo was the first of many that the Pope will make to holy places during his first visit to the Middle East. (Credit: Pier Paolo Cito / Associated Press)

Pope Benedict XVI is on Day Two of his week-long visit to the Middle East. Today, he visited the   ancient Basilica of the Memorial of Moses at Mt. Nebo. This is the site where, according to the Bible, Moses first saw the prophesied Promised Land.

The Pope has a number of stops planned for his trip, which is the first papal visit to the region since 2000. The Vatican says the tour will include a number of sites sacred not only to Christians but also Jews and Muslims.

Reuters has outlined some holy highlights of the Pope's visit.

Mount Nebo

•  This is where the Bible says Moses first saw the Promised Land and died after leading the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The remains of a 4th century church stand on the site, which Christian tradition holds to be the final resting place of Moses. Muslims associate the events with another site, Nebi Musa on the west bank of the Jordan.

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JORDAN: A river of baptism and blame

River jordan It is a river of spiritual rebirth, a river of sewage and blame.

Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan. Bible stories conjure up a wide, flowing river that cleanses and purifies. That’s the symbolism Amer Hafi, a religious professor, says Pope Benedict XVI wants to instill during his three-day pilgrimage to Jordan.

The trip comes after the outrage that swept the Muslim world in 2006 when the pontiff quoted medieval writings that suggested Islam was a violent religion. What better place then to find reconciliation than on the banks of the Jordan, which the 82-year-old Benedict will visit Sunday?

“Like being baptized in the Jordan River washes your sins away, hopefully,” said Hafi, who studied Christian theology in Rome, “the pope’s trip to Jordan will make the slate clean. I expect something from him to show that he understands the Arab world’s pain.”

But the River Jordan carries other symbolism too. The 150-mile river, which flows through Lake Galilee and into the Dead Sea, has been diverted and degraded over the last 60 years. Environmentalists say Israel, Jordan and Syria are to blame.

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JORDAN: Will Pope add spiritual spark to the economy?


Selling a wooden Jesus has never been tougher, but Samir Haddad, a sunburned shopkeeper with dust collecting on his Virgin Mary statues, hopes that the just-arrived Pope Benedict XVI will add ecclesiastical spark to the Jordanian economy.

The pope’s entourage will pass Haddad’s shop Saturday as it winds through the town of Madaba, where pilgrims with flecks of British and Italian accents have been browsing but not buying. It’s been dismal since the global financial crisis settled in months ago and the world of relics, souvenirs and kitsch contracted.

“The tourists who come have no money to spend,” said Haddad, peering through strands of rosaries and worry beads hanging vine-like over his counter. “Business is down 60% and now we have fears of the swine flu. Travel groups are canceling tours. We hope in the month after the pope leaves business will get better.”

The other shopkeepers felt the same. They sat on the sidewalk in plastic chairs, watching their cigarettes burn smaller. The weaver’s loom was still; no matter how pretty, no one was buying carpets of the Last Supper. Lamb spun on a spit in the kebab restaurant. The big man in the white apron shook his head.

The cops guarding St. Gregory’s listened to the “Welcome Pope” banners snap in the wind, which blew out of town and across the wheat fields.

-- Jeffrey Fleishman in Madaba, Jordan

Photo: Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Amman, the Jordanian capital. His entourage will pass through Madaba, where merchants are hoping for a boost in sales of religious items.

Full coverage: Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

ISRAEL: Papal visit protocol potholes

The Holy Land pilgrimage of Pope Benedict XVI is a complicated affair. Besides requiring a tremendous amount of logistics and coordination, complex political realities present countless potholes that need to be sidestepped.

The pope will be attending a reception ceremony at the Israeli president's residence in (West) Jerusalem on Monday. Later in the week, he will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth (full itinerary here).

A journalist (not the one in the picture) had inquired about the choice at a briefing held by Wadie abu Nassar,Wadie head of the ecclesiastical communications committee.

Consider the exchange:

Reporter: Why is the pope meeting the Israeli prime minister in Nazareth?

Abu Nassar: Very simple, the Holy Father is a head of state. He meets only heads of state.

Reporter: But why in Nazareth?

Abu Nassar: He is meeting President Peres, head of the Israeli state. Netanyahu is not head of state. But since the Israeli system is such that the prime minister has more political authorities than the president, there is a meeting. The Holy Father is not coming for pleasure, he has messages to deliver to the competent authorities. Since Netanyahu is not head of state, he is visiting the Holy Father in the house of the Holy Father. The monastery is the house of the Holy Father.

Reporter: Yes, but why in Nazareth?

Abu Nassar: Well, where is the house of the Holy Father in Jerusalem?

Reporter: The Apostolic Delegation.

Abu Nassar: And where is this located?

(Everyone laughs.)

Reporter: Gotcha.

The missing punchline, of course, is that the Apostolic Delegation resides in East Jerusalem. And it's officially the Apostolic Delegation of Jerusalem and Palestine.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Photo: Wadie abu Nassar during a briefing at the Latin Patriarchate. Credit: Batsheva Sobelman

Full coverage: Pilgrimage to the Holy Land


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