|Palestinian Christians view the papal visit as a gesture of moral support [GALLO/GETTY]|
A visit by the pope to the Holy Land is always a momentous event for Roman Catholics around the world and for Palestinian Christians in particular.
This month’s tour by Benedict XVI is the first such trip since Pope John Paul II visited in 2000.
However, this papal visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories – the first since Benedict became pope four years ago – is also accompanied by controversy.
As host country, Israel has a number of issues with the current pope, some that date back many years and others that are more recent.
The visit may also offer some pointers as to the way ahead for relations between the Vatican and Israel.
As a teenager in Nazi Germany in the 1940s, Pope Benedict was enrolled in the Hitler Youth movement.
Although membership was compulsory at the time, many Israelis are troubled by this aspect of his past.
While some Israeli officials have expressed the hope that the pope’s personal experience would make him particularly committed to fighting anti-Semitism, another more recent row about Nazi Germany is threatening to overshadow the papal visit.
Israeli-Vatican ties cut
In January, the pope issued a decree welcoming back into the Roman Catholic Church a bishop who denies the extent of the Holocaust.
The bishop, British-born Richard Williamson, says he does not believe that millions of Jews died in Nazi gas chambers and the decision to rehabilitate him has provoked international controversy.
The Chief Rabbinate of Israel cut off ties with the Vatican in protest, and many Catholics feared a big setback to the inter-faith dialogue promoted by John Paul II, Benedict’s predecessor.
“The Vatican wants Israel to remove a plaque attacking Pope Pius XII currently displayed at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem“
The Vatican subsequently said the pope had been unaware of Bishop Williamson’s views and ordered the bishop to “unequivocally and publicly” retract his comments.
Another source of tension between the Vatican and Israel is the pope’s intention to beatify Pius XII – the pontiff accused by some critics of failing to speak out in defence of Jews during the second world war.
The Vatican rejects these accusations, insisting that Pius XII did help the Jews although he avoided making public statements that could have enflamed an already bad situation.
In turn, the Vatican wants Israel to remove a plaque attacking Pope Pius XII which is currently displayed at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.
The pope has twice visited synagogues, in the US and his native Germany.
He has also tried to patch up relations with the Muslim world after remarks he made in a speech two years ago in which he appeared to suggest that Islam was inherently violent and irrational.
However, he appeared to undermine his own attempts to promote inter-faith harmony after he recently expressed the view that inter-religious dialogue “in the strict sense of the word” between Christians, Jews and Muslims was “not possible”.
Dwindling Christian community
For the dwindling Christian community in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, the pope’s visit has political as well as religious significance.
It represents a gesture of moral support at a time when many Palestinian Christians are emigrating to escape the economic consequences of the Israeli occupation and, in some cases, increasing intolerance from their Palestinian Muslim neighbours.
Churches of all denominations in the Holy Land are anxious to slow the exodus of Christians.
In particular, they point to the policy of the Israeli authorities to withdraw identity cards from Palestinians in East Jerusalem who have obtained a passport of another country.
Church leaders say they will ask the pope to raise the issue of Jerusalem identity cards with Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, during his visit.
In the current political climate, however, it would be unrealistic to expect any significant shift in the Israeli position on this issue.