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Pope Benedict XVI heads for Israel

Leaving a message of inter-religious harmony in Jordan, Pope Benedict XVI ventures to more contentious terrain today as his journey in Jesus’ footsteps takes him across the modern political and religious minefields of Israel and the West Bank.

The Roman Catholic leader has the potential to contribute to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, revitalize the dwindling Christian presence in the Holy Land, and set the church’s relations with Jews and Muslims on a new path. His words and gestures, on the other hand, could inflame old antagonisms and widen discord.

So far the 82-year-old pontiff’s weeklong pilgrimage, his first to the Middle East, has gone smoothly. During three days in Jordan, he has voiced “deep respect” for Islam, been welcomed into a mosque and spoken out against “the ideological manipulation of religion” for political and violent ends. Some leading Muslims said he had quelled much of the anger over a 2006 speech in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor’s assertion that Islam had brought things “evil and inhuman.”

Tougher audiences lie ahead. The next five days will test Benedict’s ability to navigate some obvious pitfalls and command the respect that his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, gained from all sides during his groundbreaking pilgrimage to the same region nine years ago.

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Here are some opportunities and would-be trouble spots the pope faces this week in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth.

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Holocaust memorial

Jews will listen carefully not only to Benedict’s prepared remarks at Israel’s Holocaust memorial but also to his response to Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau during today’s ceremony. The tenor of Catholic-Jewish relations, lifted by John Paul’s visit in 2000, will depend to an extent on what Benedict says.

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Benedict will not enter a museum at the site, which contains a placard critical of Pope Pius XII’s failure during World War II to speak out against the Nazi slaughter of 6 million Jews. Despite his lament of the horrors of the Holocaust, John Paul did not express remorse for Pius’ silence; nor is Benedict likely to do so.

Lau, a child survivor of the Holocaust and now chairman of the Yad Vashem council in charge of the memorial, says two questions are more immediate. Lau will ask Benedict: Why did he lift the excommunication of Richard Williamson, a Holocaust-denying bishop? And why did the Vatican not join Israel, the United States and other nations last month in boycotting a United Nations conference on racism that critics say was used to malign the Jewish state?

Although Benedict has forcefully condemned anti-Semitism and insisted that Williamson disavow his statements minimizing the Holocaust, the issue will hang over the papal visit.

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Jerusalem tug of war

When Benedict’s helicopter touches down today in East Jerusalem, he will step into a turf battle.

The helipad is in the part of Jerusalem claimed by Palestinians as the future capital of a Palestinian state. Israel considers Jerusalem its “eternal and undivided” capital. Palestinian activists say Mayor Nir Barkat’s plans to meet the pope’s helicopter and attend his Mass on Tuesday are maneuvers to reinforce Israel’s claim. They want the pope to denounce the demolition of Palestinian homes and construction of Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

Any papal remark on the subject would be extremely sensitive. The Vatican favors “an internationally guaranteed special status” for Jerusalem’s holy sites that does not prejudice the question of whether the city should be the capital of Israel, a Palestinian state or both.

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The shadow of the wall

Coming and going from Bethlehem on Wednesday, Benedict will move through a checkpoint in the towering concrete wall Israel has built to separate itself from much of the West Bank.

For Palestinians, the wall is a symbol of Israeli occupation. Israel calls it a barrier against suicide bombers. When Palestinian leaders in Bethlehem tried to build a stage for the pope next to the wall, Israel objected, the work stopped and the Vatican agreed that the pope would speak from the courtyard of a school in the Aida refugee camp.

In any case, the wall will be visible in television and photographic images of the pope, and hard for him to avoid mentioning.

John Paul took issue with Israel over the barrier in 2003, saying the Middle East “does not need walls but bridges.” Will Benedict repeat that criticism and antagonize Israel, or keep silent and disappoint the Palestinians? Will he go further than his predecessor and endorse the Palestinians’ demand for a “right of return” to Israel for refugees and their descendants to the pre-1948 homes that they fled at the time of Israel’s independence? How will he do so without evoking the threat Israel feels such a flood of returnees would present to its existence as a Jewish state?

Benedict’s choice of messages will shape the Vatican’s diplomatic role in the region and perhaps its ability to reinforce U.S. efforts to bring about a peace accord.

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Tensions in Nazareth

Followers of Sheik Nazem abu Salim, a radical Muslim cleric in Nazareth, have put up a banner next to the famed Church of the Annunciation. It trumpets a verse from the Koran declaring: “Those who harm God and His Messenger -- God has cursed them in this world and in the hereafter.”

The banner is expected to be removed by the time Benedict reaches the church Thursday, but the sentiment behind it, a protest against his 2006 speech about Islam, lingers. Anonymous leaflets calling for disruptive acts have circulated in advance of the papal visit to Nazareth, which will include a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Christian-Muslim tensions in the predominantly Arab city have erupted in violence in the past. Israeli newspapers reported last week that Shin Bet, Israel’s security service, has counseled Benedict against using the partially exposed popemobile in Nazareth out concern over potential threats.

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boudreaux@latimes.com

Batsheva Sobelman of The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.


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