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The Pope in the Holy Land

Aired March 19, 2000 - 7:00 p.m. ET


ANNOUNCER: This is the Holy Land. And in the great jubilee year of 2000, Pope John Paul II embarks on a journey to the heart of Christendom. In a region steeped in religious fervor and ancient conflicts, this pastoral pilgrimage is expected to be a delicate balance. A pope known as much for his political savvy as for his universal appeal, John Paul II visits sacred sites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

"The Pope in the Holy Land."

From the Judean desert, here is CNN's Jerusalem bureau chief Walter Rodgers.

WALTER RODGERS, CNN JERUSALEM BUREAU CHIEF: For nearly 2,000 years, men and women have come to this dry and thirsty land, Christians making pilgrimages, seeking God amid the desert of human despair. Into this land, Pope John Paul II is coming, hoping to walk in the footsteps of the Hebrew prophets and of Jesus.

Like earlier pilgrims, this pope seeks to quench a spiritual thirst, but he will be drinking from a troubled spring.


UNIDENTIFIED PRIEST: Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

RODGERS (voice-over): The Roman Catholic faithful: a priest and pilgrims offering prayers before Pope John Paul II's visit to Jerusalem. Like these Christian pilgrims, the pontiff is about to embark on a deeply personal pilgrimage. Unlike theirs, the pope's is politically complicated, complicated because his church believes it has special responsibilities in Jerusalem.

MONSIGNOR PIETRO SAMBI, APOSTOLIC NUNCIO TO THE HOLY LAND: It is not possible to forget that the church has been founded in Jerusalem by the Lord himself, because it is the city where Jesus suffered, died and rose again.

RODGERS: Three religions lay claim to Jerusalem. It has been the center of Judaism for three millennia, though historians say before the modern Jewish state, Jewish rule existed only about 400 years. Muslims ruled here longer, but lost control after the First World War. For them, it is home to the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third- holiest shrine in Islam.

Israelis and Palestinians both lay claim to Jerusalem, and into this spiritual and political pressure cooker the pope is coming to pray. Some Arabs say the pope favors their claim to the city.

HANAN ASHRAWI, PALESTINIAN COUNCIL MEMBER: I think the Israelis are trying to get the pope's blessings for their control over Jerusalem, which is very clear they wouldn't get it. Nobody in the world, be they pope or be they secular leaders, would recognize Israel's sovereignty over Jerusalem.

RODGERS: Some Israeli's are wary of the Vatican's relationship with Palestinians. A recent agreement saw the Holy See warning that any attempt by the Jewish state to control the disputed city is, quote, "morally and legally unacceptable." Israelis were angry with The Vatican.

MAYOR EHUD OLMERT, JERUSALEM: I don't need them to tell me which is my capital city. Jerusalem is my capital city. Jerusalem has been for 3,000 years the capital city of the Jewish people, undivided and united, and it will remain forever our capital, whether they agree to it or they don't agree to it.

RODGERS: So the pope must carefully navigate this controversy, but Rome's position does not make it easy. A Vatican document two years ago stated, quote, "Israel does not possess any legal title to the city, not even continued occupation and growing settling of the country would help Israel get title."

Yet on the eve of the papal visit, that hard line is being soft- pedaled.

SAMBI: The problem of sovereignty, this is an aspect that belongs to the politician and the politician has to solve.

RODGERS: Preserving sacred sites, like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and access for pilgrims, seems the Vatican's real concern, far more than the issue of sovereignty in Jerusalem.

(on camera): For Rome, the Israeli-Palestinian quarrel is a small thing. The Vatican views history in terms of thousands of years.

(voice-over): One church scholar said Rome's real concern lies in protecting a shrinking Christian population here as Jerusalem's demographics shift.

Some church officials say the prospect of ultra-Orthodox Jews becoming dominant in Jerusalem frightens Rome, which views the ultra- Orthodox as intolerant and hostile to Christians.

It's a prospect that frightens some Israelis as well.

RABBI DAVID HARTMAN, SHALOM HARTMAN INSTITUTE: I wouldn't feel safe as a Jew to be here if that was true. It's not a question of Christian holy sites, it's my own institution. I would be very threatened. In other words, I couldn't live in a triumphalist's, Irani fundamentalist's mindset. I mean, Jews couldn't live here.

RODGERS: That Jerusalem is a troubled city is evidenced by the guns you see on the streets. And there is massive security for the pope's visit. So, can the pope even walk through Jerusalem without inflaming the issue of conflicting Israeli and Palestinian claims to the city?

BISHOP RIAH ABU EL-ASSAL: I feel that it will not be easy for him to ignore the issue. It's like, I mean like me being what I am, an Arab-Palestinian-Christian-Israeli, always finding myself to be caught in between. I'm sure he would say that there can be no peace without justice.

RODGERS: A thousand years ago, an Islamic scholar wrote, "Jerusalem is a golden bowl filled with a thousand scorpions." The pope may find it so again on his pilgrimage here.


RODGERS: John Paul II has been to the Holy Land before, twice as a bishop in the early 1960s. This will, however, be his first visit as pope. The last pontiff to visit Jerusalem was Paul VI, 36 years ago, when the city was divided between Israel and Jordan.

John Paul II is, however, coming to a much middle East than the one he visited as a young bishop.

From Rome, Jim Bittermann takes a look at what;'s on the pope's agenda this time.


JIM BITTERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For the past two millennium, in one fashion or another, Christian pilgrims have venerated the ancient sites of the Holy Land, traveling here to have physical contact with the same objects and surroundings Christ did, a way that can strengthen a believer's spiritual contact.

On that level, since he began his pilgrimages with a trip to Egypt last month, the pope's agenda has been no different than any other Christian's. "To visit the places where God entered human history," was the way one of John Paul's confidants described the pope's plans.

But played against a 900-year history of papal interventions in the Middle East, beginning with the crusaders' attempts to take the Holy Land by force, it has not been easy to set up a papal trip. Only Paul VI did it before, spending just two days and never mentioning, because of diplomatic differences, the word "Israel."

(on camera): Once diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel were established six years ago, the pope's trip became doable, if difficult. Travel arrangements have been worked over for months. And unlike pope trips of the past, the itinerary has been changing right up to the last minute. (voice-over): That is perhaps because the leader of one billion Catholics cannot travel to an area as religiously overcharged as the Middle East and keep to a simply personal mission. Those who know the pope well say he has set three almost impossible goals for the trip.

First among them: creating a more positive atmosphere for Mideast peace.

CARDINAL ROGER ETCHEGARAY, JUBILEE YEAR ORGANIZER (through translator): The pilgrimage can give new confidence to all those who are working for peace between people's, whatever their religion: Jews, Muslims, Christians or others.

BITTERMANN: To achieve that, the pope will concentrate, as he did on his trips to India and Georgia, on his two other goals: creating dialogue between religions and healing the divisions within the ranks of Christians themselves -- two aims that in the past have proved elusive for the Pope.

JAMES WATSON, HISTORIAN: He gets his message across brilliantly, but when you get down to the bedrock, you find that his dialogue is him talking and other people listening.

BITTERMANN: Whatever success John Paul has at his primary goals, his pilgrimage seems certain to affect other church concerns, such as, for instance, the steady decline of the number of Christians living in the Holy Land. Groups such as the Knight's of the Holy Sepulchre hope John Paul's trip will help reverse the trend. They are latter-day papal crusaders battling with financial aid to keep a Christian presence in the Middle East.

COUNT ATTENASIO CARDUCCI, KNIGHTS OF THE HOLY SEPULCHRE: The Holy Land without Christians would be a museum. We want them to stay. We want them to be, you know, witness to our central presence.

BITTERMANN: But it is the presence of Israeli musicians invited to perform at a Catholic church in the heart of Rome which bears witness to something the papal pilgrimage has already achieved even before the trip begins.

They, like Jewish and Muslim exhibitions that are going up at the Vatican's most important universities, are signs the pope's example of openness towards other religions is not lost on his flock -- small steps that capture the spirit of the pope's pilgrimage.

Jim Bittermann, CNN, Rome.


RODGERS: In a moment, we look at the pope's ties to a group which a few decades was considered by many a terrorist organization: the PLO. Now, Palestinians are about to receive what amounts to a state visit from a man Roman Catholics believe is Christ's vicar on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: It's an historic pilgrimage to the Holy Land for Pope John Paul II. From Jordan and Israel to the Palestinian-controlled areas .

In Jerusalem, a city sacred to Christians, Muslims and Jews alike: the Western Wall, a hallowed place of Jewish prayer and pilgrimage; Al Aqsa Mosque, third most-holiest site to Muslims; and one of Christianity's holiest sites, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where it is believed Jesus was crucified. To the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem.

In Bethlehem a Mass in Manger Square, the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

And on to Nazareth to the Basilica of the Annunciation, where believers believe the archangel Gabriel spoke to Mary.

In Jordan, the pope journeys to Mount Nebo, reputed site of the tomb of Moses. And then to the river Jordan, where tradition has it Jesus was baptized.

A journey wrapped in ancient and religious significance -- and political controversy.


RODGERS: When Pope John Paul II comes to the Holy Land, Palestinians are expected to embrace him. For some Palestinians, the pope represents a link to the person they consider the first Palestinian revolutionary: Jesus. That, despite Jesus' clear Jewish origins. For Palestinians, this pope's blessings would be manna from heaven.


(voice-over): Yasser Arafat is an observant Muslim, praying every Friday, revering Allah. Still, that does not stop him from seeking support from the leader of the largest Christian church in the world. Nine times, more than any Arab leader, Arafat has been to the Vatican, seeking to raise his international stature. Now the pope is coming to him.

MAHDI ABDUL HADI, PALESTINIAN ACADEMIC: I can say Araafat is interested in developing a relationship with all leaders of the world in order to maintain his recognition, his legitimacy, his role in establishing a Palestinian state. You cannot ignore the weight and the value of the Vatican and especially of the pope.

RODGERS: Officially, the Vatican says there's nothing political in the pope's visit to the Palestinians.

SAMBI: John Paul II has stressed strongly that his coming here is a pilgrimage and that he would be offended by anyone who would like to try to give a different meaning or a different part to his visit in the Holy Land.

RODGERS: Still, there has been growing unrest in the Palestinian streets. Palestinians frustrated in the peace process say they are looking to the pope now, hoping he will lend moral authority to their unfulfilled national aspirations in talks with Israel.

EL-ASSAL: I hope and pray that he will make them wake up to the reality that the -- that we have very little by way of an alternative in the Middle East if there is no peace and if there is no settlement to the conflict. The alternative, I'm afraid, will be catastrophe.

RODGERS: The Holy See tries to balance its diplomatic ties. After signing a 1997 agreement with Israel legalizing the status of the Roman Catholic Church and its properties under Israeli law, the Vatican last month signed a similar agreement with Palestinians, protecting church properties like those in Bethlehem.

Israel said the Vatican was meddling.

OLMERT: I think that there is a political bias which no one can ignore. And there are political prejudices which are part of the practice of certain guys which are certainly influencing the policy of the Vatican towards the state of Israel. And I regret it very much.

EL-ASSAL: The pope, even the Vatican signing the recent agreement, simply recognizes what should have been recognized 50 years ago. I mean, I, as a Palestinian, I wish the international community woke up to the reality of the Palestinian and gave them the recognition they deserved. We would have saved many lives.

RODGERS: The Vatican's Palestinian pact, like the earlier agreement with Israel, is aimed at preserving church properties. Privately, however, church sources say the Holy See was also concerned about Islamic fundamentalism someday curtailing Christian rights in the Holy Land.

The Vatican had a brush with the Islamic movement in Israel, when a Muslim splinter group announced plans to build a new mosque in Nazareth, close to the Church of the Annunciation, where Roman Catholics believe an angel told the Virgin Mary she would have Jesus. Israel imposed a compromise which allowed the construction of a smaller mosque. Afterwards, the Vatican felt it had lost a battle, and it was not pleased.

RODGERS (on camera): The pope's constituency in Palestinian areas is small. Palestinian officials say only 2 percent are Christians, most of those Orthodox, not Roman Catholics. Most Palestinians are Muslims.

HADI: Not every Palestinian is very much concerned about the pope's visit. we should not exaggerate his visit.

RODGERS: Still, Christian or not, one cannot minimalize the importance of the pope's time spent with Palestinian, as when he comes to this refugee camp. Because when the pope visits Palestinian cities, he remains the only world figure whose statements on human rights carry spiritual as well as temporal weight. And those pronouncements will be difficult to dismiss out of hand.

(END VIDEOTAPE) RODGERS: For Jews, the visit of the pope represents an even more difficult and complex set of problems. For John Paul II, there have been steps toward healing the deep wounds between Jews and Roman Catholics. But some say the Catholic Church still has not done enough.


ANNOUNCER: Pope John Paul II's current visit to the Holy Land is his 91st outside Italy. He has kissed the tarmac in 119 countries, with Poland and the United States holding the record for the most visits: seven times each. It is estimated the pope has racked up almost 700,000 travel miles, making John Paul II the most widely traveled pope in history.

RODGERS: The troubled relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the Jewish people goes back centuries. The church of Rome had long taught that Jews were guilty of deicide, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Many believe this teaching created in the minds of some Christians an atmosphere of tolerance for the Holocaust. Now that age-old Jewish-Christian animosity is beginning to heal, in no small degree because of this pope.


(voice-over): This site, the Western Wall, foundation of the historic Second Temple, symbolizes the Holy Land for Jews. And it was here Pope John Paul II was hoping to consummate Christian reconciliation with Judaism. Many Jews will see the pope's visit to the wall as an historic moment. But Israel's chief rabbis refuse to meet him here, saying the pope must come to them.

RABBI ARTHUR HERTZBERG, NEW YORK UNIVERSITY: He will be going to the Western Wall as he went to the synagogue in Rome. This is a man who, as I read him. wants to get beyond the Polish kind of Catholicism in which he was raised with in his youth: narrow and anti-Semitic.

RODGERS: Throughout most of his papacy, John Paul has labored to erase centuries of Catholic anti-Semitism, most dramatically this 1986 visit to the synagogue in Rome. He helped change church dogma about Jews. No longer does his church teach that Jews killed Christ. By some counts, he personally apologized 35 times for his church's anti- Semitic past, publicly and repeatedly ruing the Holocaust.

RABBI DAVID ROSEN, ANTI-DEFAMATION LEAGUE: Certainly, the Holocaust is a profound factor that has determined his world outlook and his sense that there is a special responsibility in terms of Catholic reconciliation with the Jewish people.

RODGERS: Born Karol Wojtyla in pre-war Poland, this pope grew up among Jews, sometimes attended synagogue, was a goalie on a Jewish soccer team and was a seminarian near Auschwitz.

RABBI YISRAEL MEIR LAU, CHIEF ASHKENAZI RABBI OF ISRAEL: He's the most friendly pope for the Jewish people, for Jewishness as a religion, maybe because of the influence of Holocaust, which he's faced in his very eyes.

RODGERS: It is with this pope, Pius XII, that contemporary Judaism has its biggest problem with Catholicism. On the throne of St. Peter during World War II, his perceived non-action was seen by many Jews as contributing to the deaths of millions in the Holocaust.

HERTZBERG: The church as a whole failed in its duty to excommunicate the Nazis. It failed in its duty to say during the Holocaust, the mass murder of Jews -- about which is new -- about which it knew -- is a sin, is a mortal sin.

RODGERS: Just as this pope visited the Auschwitz death camp, so he also asked to visit Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial.

ROSEN: What will go through his mind is a great sense of sadness and a great sense of pain and identification with Jewish suffering. But what will not go through his mind is, I am part of the people who is actually -- was actually an accessory to this demoniacal barbarity.

RODGERS: That Pope John Paul II has claimed the Polish people and his church were also merely victims of Nazism has not set well with Israeli Jews, many of whom believe some Poles were among the worst anti-Semites.

(on camera): But, of more concern to Israeli Jews than another papal apology is recognition. They want a papal acknowledgement of what Jews see as there rightful place in the Holy Land.

HARTMAN: What the pope's visit to Israel symbolizes and represents in an important way is that the exile of the Jewish people are over. The Jewish people are no longer a homeless people. The concept of the Wandering Jew is over, and they have come home. And the pope is coming to their home to declare that let us not look at this people anymore as a homeless people under the curse of God.

RODGERS (voice-over): Fraternal recognition between Christians and Jews has begun, but theological accord has limits. The Catholic Church only recently acknowledged Christianity's Jewish roots. And while Jesus was perhaps the most famous Jew, many Israelis have ambivalent, sometimes hostile feelings toward him still.

HERTZBERG: Are we going to resolve the difference between the Jewish conception of monotheism and the Trinity? Is it resolvable? It's not resolvable from either side. What is resolvable is that we stop irritating each other.

RODGERS: Remembering the common thread between Christians and Jews will be a major papal theme here. As Martin Boover (ph) put it, "We share a common book, and that is no small thing."


RODGERS: In the Gospel of Mark, after his resurrection, Jesus urged his disciples, "Go ye into all the world." No pope has been more obedient to that command than this one.

I'm Walter Rodgers. Thank you for watching.



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