, VATICAN CITY, May 5 – Pope Benedict XVI heads to the Middle East on Friday to plead for peace and reconcilation between Israelis and Palestinians, but the trip is already overshadowed by tense relations between Jews and Catholics.
Before embarking on the delicate mission nine years after his predecessor John Paul II’s groundbreaking trip to the region, the 82-year-old pontiff described it as a pilgrimage to pray for "unity and peace" in the region.
His spokesman Federico Lombardi said over Vatican television that the pope planned to "speak of reconciliation in a land that is crucial for dialogue among the great religions and peace in the world."
But while Israel may be looking to the visit to improve an image tarnished by its recent offensive against Hamas in Gaza, which left more than 1,300 Palestinians dead between December 27 and January 18, it comes against the backdrop of several sources of tension between Israel and the Holy See.
Little more than three months ago, the two sides were embroiled in a row over the pope’s decision to lift the ex-communication of a Holocaust-denying bishop, Richard Williamson of Britain.
That came on the heels of remarks by Benedict backing the sainthood dossier of Pope Pius XII, reviled by Jews for his passive stance during the Holocaust.
The most recent bone of contention arose last month when the Vatican sent a delegation to a UN conference on racism in Geneva, where Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lambasted Israel as a "racist" and "cruel" regime, prompting 23 European Union delegations to walk out in protest.
Israel was among several countries that boycotted the conference, a follow-up to a 2001 meeting in Durban, South Africa.
That meeting saw a walkout by Israel and the United States over proposed language accusing Israel of committing war crimes against the Palestinians.
Some observers think the pope’s trip to the region is premature.
The Williamson affair has placed the pope in a weak position, and "the great danger is that Israel will take full advantage of it," a Vatican cardinal said on condition of anonymity.
Despite the strains, however, the pope’s visit is awaited "with a lot of benevolence," according to a spokesman for France’s Jewish community.
"We expect strong words from him expressing the (Roman Catholic) Church’s desire to pursue the Judeo-Christian dialogue begun (in the 1960s) with an irreversible forward direction," a representative of the umbrella Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France told AFP.
He was referring to the Second Vatican Council, when the Church dropped its longstanding position that Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
For its part the Church laments the difficult conditions endured by Christians in Israel.
Most of them Arab, they make up some two percent of Israel’s population of some seven million.
Many are simply leaving the country, prompting fears that the Catholic presence will virtually evaporate from the cradle of Christianity.
Meanwhile the return to power on March 31 of the ultraconservative Benjamin Netanyahu has made a resolution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict appear more remote than ever.
The pope will have occasion to broach all these themes during a busy programme that will include some 30 speeches or homilies over eight days.
Benedict will follow in the footsteps of John Paul II in 2000, including a stop in Mount Nebo, where the Bible says God showed the Promised Land to Moses.
The crowning moment of the late Polish pope’s tour was a visit to Jerusalem’s Western Wall, known more commonly as the Wailing Wall, a key site of prayer for Jews.
Benedict is to preside over four public masses, in the Jordanian capital Amman, as well as in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth.
The pope is expected to stress humanitarian concerns with visits to Amman’s Regina Pacis centre for the handicapped, a children’s hospital in Bethlehem and a refugee camp also in Bethlehem, believed to be Jesus’ birthplace.
While there, he will also speak directly to Palestinians.
"Benedict XVI’s trip is similar to that of John Paul II’s (in wanting to) preserve and deepen the (Christian) heritage, including that which concerns the dialogue with Judaism," wrote Norbert Hofmann, secretary of the Vatican’s commission for relations with Jews, in the Holy See newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.
However Benedict’s contacts with Muslims will have a higher profile, notably with a longer stop in Jordan and the first papal visit to Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, the third holiest site of Islam.