Inside Israel and the Palestinian Territories
There have been a series of significant and highly publicised events recently in Vatican-Jewish relations.
Pope Benedict put his predecessor Pius XII along the road to Roman Catholic sainthood last month, angering many Jews who accused the wartime pope of turning a blind eye to the Nazi Holocaust. Benedict defended the move this week during his first visit to Rome's synagogue, which prompted Israel to ask the pope to open up the Vatican archives covering Pius' reign between 1939-1958.
But behind the scenes, out of the spotlight, the Catholic church and Jewish state have restarted efforts to put to rest a property dispute in the Holy Land that goes back much further than World War Two or Israel's founding in 1948. Churches acquired large amounts of land around Jerusalem as the Ottoman empire went into decline from the early 19th century. Today, many official Israeli buildings sit on leased church land. But agreement on the legal status of these properties has evaded governments and popes for decades.
Click below to view a multimedia presentation by Sharon Perry showcasing some of the best Reuters images from Israel and the Palestinian Territories during the week of August 24-31, 2009.
Far from the spotlight of peace talks and military conflicts, Israel is facing a different kind of land crisis: it is running out of space to bury its dead. Most Jewish cemeteries in major cities like Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa, are filled beyond maximum capacity. Gravestones are packed together leaving little room for mourners to gather.
You can read about a new system of multi-tiered burial chambers being used in the Jewish state to solve the issue of land. It’s actually an ancient system, used thousands of years ago by Jewish sages, that was modernised by two Israeli architects and given approval by the country’s chief rabbis.
It’s a bit like a Hitchock thriller. Nobody knows where he is — not even the U.S. State Department — and nobody knows when he will show up in Israel. All we know is, suspense is building and it’s time to watch out for surprises.
President Barack Obama’s Middle East peace envoy Senator George Mitchell is somewhere in transit — probably – and expected in Israel and the Palestinian Territories next week – sometime.
Barely a week after Pope Benedict ended a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, vandals desecrated some 70 graves in two Palestinian Christian cemeteries in the occupied West Bank in what a Palestinian Authority official said was a rare attack on the Christian minority in the territory.
During his trip, Benedict tried to soothe Muslim anger over past remarks on Islam and urged Palestinian Christians not to follow others of their minority group in emigrating abroad.
The Palestinian issue has figured prominently over the past week in stories with a religion angle. Pope Benedict's visit to Israel, which ended on Friday, was the most prominent. While visiting Bethlehem, he called Israel's barrier in the West Bank "one of the saddest sights" on his whole tour. Early this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met U.S. President Barack Obama for the first time. Netanyahu said the Palestinians must recognise Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition for peace talks while Obama said Jewish settlements in the West Bank "have to be stopped." On Wednesday, United Nations human rights investigators said they hoped to visit Gaza in early June and hold public hearings on whether war crimes were committed there in Israel's blockade of the area governed by the Islamist movement Hamas. (Photo: Palestinian protesters wave flags at the Damascus Gate to Jerusalem's Old City, 21 May 2009/Amir Cohen)
In almost every speech he made, Pope Benedict pleaded for more interfaith contacts and cooperation as a way to move forward towards peace. With the Israeli-Palestinian issue so polarised, the question of promoting understanding among the people of the Holy Land often seems to be reduced mostly to a Jewish-Muslim issue. The tiny Christian minority in the local population often seems to be standing on the sidelines.
Talk about a picture being worth 1,000 words. There's more than that behind this picture of Pope Benedict holding hands and singing a song for peace with leaders of other religions in Nazareth's Basilica of the Annunciation on Thursday. This might seem like an innocent gesture to most people who see it. To some Vatican correspondents following the pope on his Holy Land tour, it was an unprecedented step that spoke volumes about the evolution of his theological thinking.This sing-along started at an interfaith meeting when a rabbi began singing a song with the lyrics "Shalom, Salaam, Lord grant us peace." At some point, the 11 clerics on the stage stood up and held hands to sing the simple tune together. Never very spontaneous, Benedict looked a little hesitant but then joined in. It was something of a "kumbaya session" -- a "religious version of We Are The World," one colleague quipped -- but it was good-natured and well meant. The pope has been preaching interfaith cooperation at every stop on his tour and it seemed appropriate that it culminate in a show of unity among the religions in Galilee.But wait a minute. This is the same Joseph Ratzinger who, when he was a cardinal heading the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, frowned on Pope John Paul's pray-in with other religions at Assisi in 1986. He even declined to attend what became one of the landmark events of his predecessor's papacy. Catholics cannot pray together with other religions, he argued, because only Catholicism was the true faith and all others were flawed to greater or lesser extents. Praying together carried the risk of syncretism, or mixing religions.Over the years, Cardinal Ratzinger made several critical comments about other religions, especially Buddhism and Islam (although he is changing there as well). He drew a sharp line between Catholics and other Christians in the 2000 document Dominus Iesus that called Protestant denominations deficient and not proper churches. They felt slighted and several said so openly. The only faiths Ratzinger seemed interested in were Orthodox Christianity and Judaism (ironically, given the cool welcome he got in Israel -- but that's another story).Things change when a cardinal becomes a pope. Suddenly, he was no longer just the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog, he was the head of the world's largest church and its smallest country. He was a spiritual leader, a temporal head of state, a major diplomatic figure and one of the most prominent -- if not the most prominent -- spokesman for religion on the planet. That's a lot to juggle at the same time.
On the last day of his Holy Land pilgrimage, Pope Benedict visited the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic partriarchates, prayed in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and delivered a farewell address that touched on the main political points of his trip.
Here are some excerpts from his speeches:
ECUMENISM: "I pray that our gathering today will give new impetus to the work of theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches, adding to the recent fruits of study documents and other joint initiatives. Of particular joy for our Churches has been the participation of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, His Holiness Bartholomew I, at the recent Synod of Bishops in Rome dedicated to the theme: The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church. The warm welcome he received and his moving intervention were sincere expressions of the deep spiritual joy that arises from the extent to which communion is already present between our Churches. Such ecumenical experience bears clear witness to the link between the unity of the Church and her mission."
Pope Benedict has crossed through the imposing concrete wall that separates the West Bank town of Bethlehem from Israel to visit the town of Jesus’ birth. The wall is part of the nearly 800 km security barrier that Israel is building in and around the West Bank in a series of walls, fences, berms and ditches. He was accompanied to the checkpoint on the Israeli side by Israeli security before driving through the barrier to meet up with his Palestinian security escort.
Crossing back and forth through the checkpoints that dot what Israelis call the “separation barrier” – and which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told the pope was “the apartheid wall” – is a routine part of life for many people here. Yet it can shock newcomers to see this physical manifestation of the conflict in a region that is just a pocket-handkerchief on the map of the world. It is a measure put in place for security (as per the Israelis) or annexation and grabbing of land (as per the Palestinians). One wonders what the Pope was thinking as he crossed through.
What kind of gift does a pope give when he visits the Holy Land? This morning, the Holy See Press Office distributed a few pictures of presents Pope Benedict has brought along. Take a look:
Mosaic of the Birth of Christ
This mosaic is a copy of part of the 13th-century mosaics in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome. It was produced by the Vatican Mosaic Studio in 2000. The pope was due to hand it over to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during his visit to Bethlehem on Wednesday.