Pope to visit Jerusalem holy sites

May 13, 2009 4:13 am 

JERUSALEM — Pope Benedict meets leading Muslim and Jewish clerics at their holy sites in Jerusalem on Tuesday as he strives to promote dialogue among the religions on a Middle East tour already marked by controversy.

After meeting the Grand Mufti, Palestinians' senior Muslim cleric, at the Dome of the Rock which dominates the Old City, he will meet Israel's two chief rabbis at the Western Wall, a remnant of the Roman-era Temple that is Judaism's holiest place.

The Dome covers the spot where all three great monotheistic religions believe Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son to God, before an angel stayed his hand. King Solomon and his successors built Jewish temples on the site before the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in AD 70 and Jews scattered in exile.

In the 7th century, Islamic conquerors built the first Dome on the spot, where Muslims also believe Mohammad ascended to heaven. The area around, including the al-Aqsa mosque and known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, has been a focus of tensions since Israeli forces captured Jerusalem's Old City in 1967.

When Israeli politician Ariel Sharon walked through what is known to Jews as the Temple Mount in 2000, Palestinian anger turned into several years of bloody uprising, or Intifada, against occupation. Sharon went on to become prime minister.

The pope will later visit the site of Jesus Last Supper with his disciples before his crucifixion and resurrection, the key to Jerusalem's importance for Christians, before saying Mass for thousands of worshipers at the Garden of Gethsemane.

Controversy

Arriving on Monday after three days in Jordan, Pope Benedict found his efforts to heal differences with Jews and Muslims challenged by Israeli disappointment with his speech at Jerusalem's Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, and by a fiery anti-Israel speech, delivered in his presence by a Palestinian Muslim cleric, which annoyed both the Vatican and Israelis.

The German leader of the world's billion Roman Catholics was a member of the Hitler Youth, when enrollment was compulsory, and drafted into German forces in World War Two.

By pledging to honor the Nazis' six million Jewish victims, he addressed Jewish concerns about his reinstatement of a bishop who denied the extent of the Holocaust. In a speech on arrival in Israel, Benedict also deplored continued anti-Semitism and said it must be resisted.

However, some Jewish leaders were disappointed by his later remarks at Yad Vashem when he spoke of the "horrific tragedy of the Shoah", the Hebrew term for the Holocaust, and called it an atrocity that had disgraced mankind and must never be repeated.

Former Israeli chief rabbi Israel Meir Lau said the pope should have been more explicit in his comments at the memorial.

"There certainly was no apology expressed here," he said.

"Something was missing."

Yad Vashem has been a source of friction between Catholics and Jews for some years. Its museum, which the pope did not visit, includes a picture of Pope Pius XII with a caption saying he remained neutral between Nazi Germany and Jews in World War Two. The Vatican says Pius worked quietly to save Jews.

Pope Benedict has also been working to reach out to Muslims since remarks in 2006 that many found critical of Islam. His promotion of a three-way dialogue in Jerusalem among Christians, Jews and Muslims hit a snag on Monday, however, when an outspoken Palestinian Muslim cleric lambasted Israeli policy in the city and urged the pope to help stop Israeli "crimes".

Israel's Chief Rabbinate, which represents both the European and Middle Eastern traditions in Judaism, said it would boycott the forum until Palestinians barred the cleric. The Vatican too said Sheikh Taysir al-Tamimi had abused the spirit of dialogue. (PNA/ANTARA)

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