Yair Ettinger, Lily Galili and Jack Khoury
Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday described the trials of Jerusalem’s dwindling Christian community as a direct continuation of Jesus’ sufferings.
During a special mass at the Gethsemane Church in Jerusalem, Benedicy assured the thousands of believers present that he understood the “frustration, pain and suffering” the Israeli-Arab conflict has caused them. He also urged the relevant authorities to value and support the Christian presence in the city.
At the sunlit afternoon mass for hundreds of worshippers at the Garden of Gethsemane, beneath the Mount of Olives and the city walls, he evoked the “universal vocation” of Jerusalem as the spiritual home of Jews, Muslims and Catholics.
The Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, won applause from worshippers when he spoke of “the agony of the Palestinian people who dream of living in a free and independent Palestinian state”. He also spoke of the “agony of the Israeli people” whose “military might” had not brought them security.
The pope recalled “the difficulties, the frustration and the pain and suffering which so many of you have endured as a result of the conflicts which have afflicted these lands”.
The mass was far from the stadium-sized event the pope is used to elsewhere. There are some 140,000 Catholics in Israel and the West Bank, mostly Arabs. Some complain of Israeli security restrictions limiting their access to Jerusalem.
The crowd included pilgrims from around the world, and even a group of Sudanese refugees, as well as Israeli Arabs and West Bank Palestinians. Prayers were therefore conducted in several languages.
Earlier Tuesday, the pope visted the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, as well as a reception by Chief Rabbis Shlomo Amar and Yona Metzger.
Following his meeting with the chief rabbis, Benedict spoke of his desire to “deepen mutual understanding and respect” between the Vatican, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and the Jewish peopleworldwide,through “fraternal dialogues.”
He also stressed that the Church remains “irrevocably committed” to the Second Vatican Council’s call in 1965 for a “genuine and lasting” Christian-Jewish reconciliation.
Metzger responded by thanking the pope for what he termed a “historic agreement” under which the Church will cease missionary work aimed at converting Jews.
He and Amar also reiterated a request, first raised at an earlier meeting at the Vatican, that the Church allocate an annual day to denouncing anti-Semitism.
The also told the pope that it was his duty to spread the message that the Jewish people belong in the Land of Israel.
“You represent a large nation of believers that knows what the Bible is, and it is your duty to pass on the message that the Jewish people deserve a renaissance, and a little respect – to live in this land,” Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar told the pope.
Some members of the Chief Rabbinical Council skipped the reception, which Amar said was “their right.”
During his visit to the Temple Mount, where he became the first pope to enter the Dome of the Rock, Benedict met with the Palestinian Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Mohammed Hussein.
Like every Palestinian official the pope has met, Hussein urged him to do whatever he could to end “the ongoing aggression against our people, our land and our holy sites.” The mufti also said the visit constituted recognition by the Vatican that the Temple Mount is a Muslim site.
In his address, however, Benedict dodged this issue, merely stressing the need for interfaith dialogue as a means of achieving peace.
He then visited the Western Wall, where he delivered a brief address in Latin in which he described Jerusalem as a city holy to three faiths. He also inserted a note in the wall, which, according to a Vatican spokesman, similarly referred to “Jerusalem, City of Peace, spiritual home to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike” and asked God to “send Your peace upon this Holy Land, upon the Middle East, upon the entire human family.”
On Wednesday, Benedict will go to Bethlehem, where he will visit a children’s hospital and a refugee camp, meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and say mass at the Church of the Nativity.