AMMAN, May 11 – Pope Benedict on Monday begins the most delicate part of his first trip to the Middle East, with a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
He leaves Jordan after three days in which he stressed his desire for warm relations between Christians and Muslims and tried to wipe away residual bitterness over a 2006 lecture he made which Muslims saw as offensive.
After being seen off by Jordan’s King Abdullah, Benedict, 82, will make a 30-minute flight from Amman to Tel Aviv and be welcomed by President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
During his five-day stay in Israel and the Palestinian territories, he is expected to repeat his offer for the Catholic Church to do all it can to help the stalled peace process.
Between visits to sacred sites connected to the life of Jesus he will also hold talks with Israeli officials, Palestinian leaders and Jewish and Islamic religious leaders.
The Vatican supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Since being sworn in as head of Israel’s new, right-leaning government on March 31, Netanyahu has not specifically discussed establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, a U.S. and Arab priority.
Anything the pope says on the subject will echo around the region, particularly when he visits a Palestinian refugee camp in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. In Bethlehem he will meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
On Monday afternoon the pope visits Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.
In the 45 years since the Second Vatican Council repudiated the concept of collective Jewish guilt for Christ’s death, Catholic-Jewish relations have been haunted by the Holocaust and the question of what the church did, or failed to do, about it.
They went through one of their worst periods after the pope in January lifted the excommunication of four traditionalist bishops, including one who had denied the Holocaust.
The Vatican says it did not know enough about the bishop’s past and both sides now hope the issue can be definitively closed with the Yad Vashem visit.
Most Jewish leaders now consider the episode to have been put to rest but some want the pope to make another firm repudiation of Holocaust denial and stress that there is no room for anti-Semitism in the church.
Israeli police said they would be carrying out their largest security operation in nearly a decade, since the visit by Pope John Paul in 2000.
Some 30,000 police will be on duty. Everywhere he travels, the pope will have police helicopters tracking him from above.
By Philip Pullella