Resisting pressure from both Israeli hard-liners and those antagonistic to the Israeli state, the visiting Pope Benedict XVI has come out in support of a genuine Palestinian homeland and has condemned equally both anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.
The leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics has used his Middle East trip to call for positive renewed relations between Christians, Jews and Muslims, for reconciliation and justice in Israel-Palestine and for an end to anti-Jewish and anti-Arab prejudice.
However, he has also stressed that his visit is of a spiritual nature and that he is not seeking a direct stake in political negotiations – though he does consider it his business to comment on questions of truth, justice and peace.
But the Pope is being challenged to be more forthright both in apologising for historic Catholic complicity in anti-Semitism and in denouncing the injustices committed against the Palestinians – who have faced further crackdowns in the wake of the papal visit.
The call for a Palestinian homeland has set the pontiff at odds with the new right-wing Israeli government which has refused to back a two-state solution – though that now has the clear backing of the USA and most countries in the world.
The Obama administration has also made it evident that as part of a package giving justice to the Palestinians, it wants Arab nations to give recognition to Israel.
Offering prayers yesterday at Yad Vashem, the monument to Holocaust victims, the Pope reiterated his condemnation of the genocide. “May the names of these victims never perish,” he said. “May their suffering never be denied, belittled or forgotten.”
But Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, chair of the Yad Vashem council, said that comments by the Pope did not go far enough in healing the rift between the Catholic Church and Jewish people.
A further row erupted after the Israeli President introduced the Pope to the family of a soldier captured by Hamas militants almost three years ago. Groups representing about 10,000 Palestinians held in Israeli jails said that the Pope should also meet families of these prisoners.
Israel allowed around 100 Christians from Gaza into Jerusalem for the papal visit. But the authorities denied entry to about 200 more on security grounds, which angered Palestinian officials and church leaders.
A Palestinian media centre in east Jerusalem was also shut down before the Pope arrived.