Jerusalem, May. 11, 2009
Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Israel on Monday, May 11, and immediately set the tone for his visit with an introductory statement in which he forcefully condemned anti-Semitism and mourned the victims of the Holocaust, while also clearly calling for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Holy Father landed at Ben Gurion airport outside Tel Aviv on Monday morning after having spent the weekend in Jordan. He was greeted there by Israel's President Shimon Peres, who will escort the Pontiff during his stay, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who left soon after the Pope's arrival for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Since he took office in March at the head of a new right-wing governing coalition, Netanyahu has shown no enthusiasm for the creation of a Palestinian state, and little interest in negotiations with Palestinian leaders. The Pope wasted no time re-affirming the Vatican's longstanding support for a two-state solution. In his introductory remarks at the airport ceremony he said that he-- along with "people of good will everywhere"-- wished for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, "so that both peoples may live in peace in a homeland of their own, within secure and internationally recognized borders." The political point of the Pope's message was unmistakably clear. But a spokesman for the Netanyahu government neatly dodged an incipient controversy by observing mildly that the Pope was visiting Israel as a religious pilgrim rather than a political leader-- a point that Benedict XVI has made repeatedly himself.
The Holy Father made that point again in his first public remarks. "I take my place in a long line of Christian pilgrims to these shores," he said; "a line that stretches back to the earliest centuries of the Church's history and which, I am sure, will continue long into the future." He said that he had come primarily to pray at the shrines of the Holy Land. (Pope Benedict will begin visiting those shrines on Tuesday, May 11, when he tours the Old City of Jerusalem and meets with the Catholic bishops of the region in the Cenacle: the room where Jesus and the apostles celebrated the Last Supper.)
The status of Jerusalem's shrines has sometimes been a point of contention in talks between the Vatican and Israel, and Pope Benedict made a point of underlining the Church's insistence that these shrines should be open to the believers of all three great monotheistic religions, so that the faithful can visit them "freely and without restraint," arrange their own worship services, and ensure their proper maintenance." To further that objective, the Holy See has consistently pushed for international control over Jerusalem, to prevent political conflicts over control of the holy places.
Recognizing the unique status of the city, the Pope reflected: "Even though the name Jerusalem means 'city of peace', it is all too evident that, for decades, peace has tragically eluded the inhabitants of this holy land." In that context he made his plea for a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "The eyes of the world are upon the peoples of this region," he said, challenging them to reinvigorate the peace process.
While he prodded Israeli leaders on the peace process and on access to the shrines, Pope Benedict also expressed his support for the Jewish state in its clear recognition of the importance of faith. He suggested that their shared insistence on religious identity makes Israel and the Holy See natural allies against a trend toward secularization of public life. "When the religious dimension of the human person is denied or marginalized," the Pontiff said, "the very foundation for a proper understanding of inalienable human rights is placed in jeopardy."
The Pope noted, too, that the Jewish people have suffered more than any others as a result of 20th-century ideologies that ignored fundamental human rights. Moreover, he said: "Sadly, anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head in many parts of the world." He insisted that this bigotry must be eliminated through education and inter-religious cooperation.
Upon his arrival in Israel the Pope observed that it was fitting for him to visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial near Jerusalem. When he arrived there later in the day, the Holy Father delivered a short speech that was clearly designed to reassure Jewish people of his sympathy, after tensions had been raised by the controversy earlier this year revolving around Bishop Richard Williamson and his public questioning the extent of the Holocaust.
Pope Benedict's remarks centered on the 6 million names of Holocaust victims inscribed at Yad Vashem. "May the names of these victims never perish," he said, in a clear rebuke to Holocaust-deniers. "May their suffering never be denied, belittled, or forgotten!"
The Pope said that although the Nazi genocide claimed these millions of victims, it could not claim their memories:
They lost their lives, but they will never lose their names: these are indelibly etched in the hearts of their loved ones, their surviving fellow prisoners, and all those determined never to allow such an atrocity to disgrace mankind again. Most of all, their names are forever fixed in the memory of Almighty God.
Each one of these victims was precious to God, the Pope said, and beloved by their families. "I can only imagine the joyful expectation of their parents as they anxiously awaited the birth of their children." Their possessions, their freedom, and ultimately their lives were taken from them by a violently unjust regime. "Yet, try as one might, one can never take away the name of a fellow human being," the Pope observed.