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ISRAEL-DIALOGUE May-11-2009 (900 words) With photos. xxxi

Papal dialogue meeting cut short after Muslim cleric criticizes Israel


By Cindy Wooden and Judith Sudilovsky
Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM (CNS) -- Across the street from the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, walls that enclose a unique collection of sites holy to Christians, Muslims and Jews, Pope Benedict XVI urged all believers to witness to the fact that God exists.

The pope was able to read the entire text of the speech prepared for his meeting May 11 with organizations involved in interreligious dialogue, but several Jewish leaders walked out later when a Muslim cleric, who was not scheduled to speak, took the microphone.

When Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem convinced the chief Palestinian justice, Sheik Taysir al-Tamimi, to stop talking, the pope shook the sheik's hand, then left the hall.

Pope Benedict does not speak Arabic and obviously did not understand what the sheik was saying. Rabbi David Rosen, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, who was at the meeting, later called the pope's smile while the sheik was speaking "a smile of patient frustration."

The abrupt end of the evening meeting meant that the religious leaders did not get to greet the pope personally and did not have an opportunity to give him the gifts they had prepared.

Sheik al-Tamimi spoke energetically against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, Israeli action during the crisis in the Gaza Strip, the difficulties Israel creates for Palestinians wanting to travel, and the security wall Israel has built along much of its border and through parts of the Palestinian territories, said Carol Tabash, who was in the audience.

After the meeting, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said, "In a meeting dedicated to dialogue, this intervention was a direct negation of what a dialogue should be.

"We hope that such an incident will not damage the mission of the pope aiming at promoting peace and also interreligious dialogue, as he has clearly affirmed on many occasions during this pilgrimage. We hope also that interreligious dialogue in the Holy Land will not be compromised by this incident," Father Lombardi added.

Tabash, a Catholic who works for the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, told Catholic News Service, "It would have been better if he (the sheik) had stuck to interreligious dialogue.

"It is the first time we have seen the pope. I hoped it would have ended in a different way," she said.

Tabash said she did not think the incident would be a setback to dialogue in the region.

"There have always been problems and we still find a way to speak," she said.

Sheik al-Tamimi was involved in a tense moment during a similar meeting Pope John Paul II held in Jerusalem in 2000. Nine years ago, one of Israel's chief rabbis made a speech in which he called Jerusalem Israel's "eternal undivided capital" and claimed the pope had recognized it as such. Sheik al-Tamimi got up and made a rebuttal, saying Jerusalem was Palestine's undivided capital and decrying Israel's occupation of the city.

Pope Benedict told those gathered in the auditorium of Jerusalem's Notre Dame center that members of every religion can proclaim to the world the fact that God exists, that he created the world and that people are called to do his will and respect his creation.

The differences between religions "need not overshadow the common sense of awe and respect for the universal, for the absolute and for truth, which impel religious people to converse with one another in the first place," he said.

Pope Benedict said that as believers in one God and as people who recognize the importance of faith religious people have an obligation to demonstrate concretely that belief in God does not always lead to conflict and tension.

"As believers or religious persons we are presented with the challenge to proclaim with clarity what we share in common," the pope said.

He said believers cannot allow their differences to be such huge barriers that they hide "the common sense of awe and respect" for the greatness of God, for the absolute and for truth, which is what motivates people to engage in dialogue in the first place.

"Together we can proclaim that God exists and can be known, that the earth is his creation, that we are his creatures and that he calls every man and woman to a way of life that respects his design for the world," the pope said.

He also praised the many groups who are engaged not only in discussing faith and religious differences, but in bringing Christians, Muslims and Jews together to serve the poor and suffering.

"You daily demonstrate your belief that our duty before God is expressed not only in our worship, but also in our love and concern for society, for culture, for our world and for all who live in this land," the pope said.

After the meeting broke up, Oded Weiner, director general of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, said, "We are sorry that someone like al-Tamimi did that to the pope.

"The pope came here to seek peace, to promote peace through religion and for a religious person to get up, (it's like) spitting at the pope," Weiner said.

The Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land has been engaged in a dialogue, which has included Sheik al-Tamimi and representatives of the rabbinate, but now, Weiner said, "We are demanding either he goes or we go."

END


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