Pope ends Holy Land visit with plea for peace
Pope Benedict XVI ended a politically charged visit to Israel and the West Bank on Friday with new condemnations of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial and his strongest appeal yet for the creation of a Palestinian state.
Benedict’s farewell remarks from the tarmac at Tel Aviv’s airport pleased both Israelis and Palestinians, many of whom had initially viewed him with skepticism. Some said later they felt vindication from portions of his carefully worded statements and a measure of respect for his moral authority.
Yet few outsiders who bring a message of peace to the Middle East manage to move its stubborn conflicts toward resolution, and no one expects Benedict to even come close.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pointedly told the pope that he resists the idea of an independent Palestine, even though most Western leaders support it.
And some young Palestinians on hand for a papal Mass in the West Bank town of Bethlehem this week scoffed at the 82-year-old Roman Catholic leader’s warning to “resist any temptation . . . to resort to acts of violence and terrorism.”
“Israeli occupation is the terrorism,” said Samir Assad, 23. “Violent resistance will end when the occupation ends.”
Further limiting the pope’s influence was a divergence of expectations: Israelis were seeking the Vatican’s renewed commitment to fight anti-Semitism. They cared less about what mattered to Palestinians: getting the pope to highlight their suffering under occupation and their quest for a state of their own.
Still, Benedict said he found “deep interest in peace” among Israeli and Palestinian leaders, despite their “great differences.”
“Even if this was less visible, it needs to be encouraged,” he told journalists on the flight back to Rome, the Associated Press reported.
His final words of encouragement were even-handed and emotionally powerful.
“Allow me to make this appeal to all the people of these lands: No more bloodshed. No more fighting. No more terrorism. No more war!” he said in his farewell speech, standing with Israeli President Shimon Peres. “Let it be universally recognized that the state of Israel has the right to exist, and to enjoy peace and security within internationally recognized borders. Let it likewise be acknowledged that the Palestinian people have a right to a sovereign independent homeland.”
Marwan Toubasi, an official of the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, said Benedict’s visit “achieved everything we were hoping to get from it.”
Palestinians were delighted by his words and the potent symbolism of his visit Wednesday to a Palestinian refugee camp in Bethlehem just yards from Israel’s separation barrier, which seals off much of the West Bank and is loathed by Palestinians.
The pope singled it out again Friday, calling it “one of the saddest sights” of his visit.
Israeli officials played down the influence, even as they conceded that his Palestinian Authority hosts in Bethlehem had scored a propaganda victory.
Yigal Palmor, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Israel arranged no papal events to highlight the victims of Palestinian attacks because the Vatican had described Benedict’s trip in advance as a nonpolitical pilgrimage. As a result, Palmor said, “he expressed solidarity only with people on one side of the wall.”
“This had some impact, but we shouldn’t exaggerate it,” he added. “He’s not the spiritual leader of either Jews or Muslims. He’ll always be welcomed . . . but he’s not really the one who’s expected to show the way forward.”
Benedict undoubtedly has more sway over Catholics’ attitudes toward Jews, and Israelis recognized that. His speech Monday at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial stirred far more interest and controversy in Israel than anything he said about the Palestinians.
Some Israeli officials and commentators criticized the speech as impersonal and lacking passion. They faulted Benedict for not condemning Christian anti-Semitism as a contributing factor in the slaughter of 6 million Jews during World War II or acknowledging his own witness of Nazi terror as a conscript in the Hitler Youth and German army.
In apparent response, the pope returned to the subject in his farewell remarks. He said his meeting with Holocaust survivors at Yad Vashem had been “one of the most solemn moments” of the visit.
“Those deeply moving encounters,” the pope said, “brought back memories of my visit three years ago to the death camp at Auschwitz, where so many Jews -- mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, friends -- were brutally exterminated under a godless regime that propagated an ideology of anti-Semitism and hatred.”
Several of his Israeli critics welcomed the new statement.
“These words are a bridge of friendship, of understanding, of peace and love between nations, religions and races,” Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, a child survivor of the Holocaust and chairman of Yad Vashem, told Reuters Television.
Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.