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INTERRELIGIOUS-ANALYSIS May-12-2009 (860 words) With photos posted May 11 and 12. xxxi

In Jerusalem, pope walks into politics of interreligious dialogue

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM (CNS) -- On his first day in Jerusalem, Pope Benedict XVI received a double lesson in the politics of interreligious dialogue.

At the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial May 11, his graceful and at times poetic speech left some Jewish leaders dissatisfied because it failed to talk about the Nazi perpetrators and the church's own failings during World War II.

Addressing interfaith dialogue experts shortly afterward, the pope listened as a Muslim cleric took the microphone and denounced Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, prompting some Jewish participants to walk out and cutting the program short.

The pope's "pilgrimage of peace" was clearly not immune from the real-world divisions among Christians, Muslims and Jews.

At Yad Vashem, the pope chose to give a talk that explored the concept of "name" and "remembrance" that are key to the memorial, and his brief encounter with six Holocaust survivors left them moved and grateful for the visit.

But it didn't take long for some Jewish leaders to fault the pope for what he did not say.

After describing the visit as "positive, important, a step forward," Avner Shalev, chairman of the Yad Vashem directorate, said he was disappointed that "the pope did not mention the Nazi German perpetrators" of the Holocaust.

The chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, also expressed disappointment at the pope's speech.

"Something was missing. There was no mention of the Germans or the Nazis who participated in the butchery, nor a word of regret," Rabbi Lau said.

The fact that the pope is a German who had direct experience of the Nazi regime made the omission all the more puzzling to some of his listeners.

The Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, said the pope simply chose to focus his talk on the meaning of the memorial. The spokesman noted that the pope has spoken about the Nazi atrocities before and repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism and said people shouldn't expect him to "cover every aspect of the Holocaust every time he gives a speech."

There were several likely reasons the pope on this occasion did not explore his own experiences and the role of Germany or the church in the Holocaust.

For one thing, Vatican sources said before the trip that it was important for people to understand that the pope was not going to Yad Vashem as a German but as the head of the universal church.

In addition, a "mea culpa" statement that explored the responsibilities of Christians in the Nazi effort was probably seen as too complex and time-consuming for the brief Yad Vashem visit and would have turned the focus away from the personal stories of victims and survivors that the memorial honors.

More generally, Pope Benedict rarely gets "personal" about his experiences and memories under Nazi Germany. The Nazis came to power when the future pope was a boy. School officials registered him in the Hitler Youth -- although Father Lombardi insisted to reporters May 12 that the pope was never an active member. Later, when the pope was 16, he and his fellow seminarians were conscripted into an anti-aircraft battalion and later into the army.

While he has spoken several times about the crimes of the Nazi regime, Pope Benedict has recalled his personal experiences only on a couple of occasions since his election as pope.

That was the biggest difference between Pope Benedict's visit to Yad Vashem and the similar visit nine years ago by Pope John Paul II.

In 2000, Pope John Paul movingly recalled his own Jewish friends and neighbors in Poland who were caught up in the persecution, then spoke warmly and at length with 30 Jewish survivors from his native city. It was an emotional high point of the late pope's pilgrimage.

Pope Benedict spoke briefly with each of six Holocaust survivors at Yad Vashem in his typically reserved style.

The pope's interreligious event at the Notre Dame center in Jerusalem demonstrated how easily the political divisions between Israelis and Palestinians can surface in interfaith relations.

Sheik Taysir al-Tamimi, an Islamic court judge who was not on the program, took the floor and spoke forcefully against Israeli occupation, Israel's military invasion of Gaza, the Israeli security wall through the West Bank and other problems. The pope himself left abruptly when the sheik finished, and the Vatican spokesman later said the sheik's intervention was a "direct negation of what a dialogue should be."

"This was unplanned and undesired," Father Lombardi said of the sheik's words.

The following day, Oded Weiner, director general of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, welcomed the pope and said: "We saw yesterday the behavior of the sheik. ... Now the whole world can see what kind of partner we have for dialogue and how difficult is the mission you have taken upon yourself."

The Vatican was probably not blindsided by this episode. Sheik al-Tamimi was the same person who, nine years earlier, argued with a rabbi over the status of Jerusalem and helped mar an interfaith event presided over by Pope John Paul at the same Notre Dame center. On that occasion, his verbal sparring partner was Rabbi Lau, then-chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel.

END


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