Pope Arrives In Israel For 5-Day Visit

Pope Benedict arrives in Israel on Monday for a tour of the Holy Land. Israeli officials hope the pontiff's visit will boost tourism, improve Israel's image and bolster relations between the Jewish state and the Vatican.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Pope Benedict touched down in Israel today and immediately called for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. He's on a journey throughout the Middle East, which will also include a trip to the Palestinian territories. The papal trip is billed as a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It also is something of a religious and political tightrope. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has been following the pope, and joins us on the line from Jerusalem.

Hello.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Hi there, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What are some of the challenges the pope will face in this visit to Israel?

POGGIOLI: Well, you know, one of his major goals is removing, you know, the residual suspicion after several episode in this papacy that have strained Catholic-Jewish relations.

First, Benedict reintroduced an old Latin liturgy that includes a prayer for the conversion of Jews. And after the Israeli military intervention in Gaza, a leading Vatican cardinal described Gaza as a big concentration camp. Most recently, Benedict revoked the excommunication of a traditionalist bishop who is a Holocaust denier. That triggered a storm of protests from Jews and non-Jews all over the world. And Benedict then forcefully reiterated his condemnation of anti-Semitism.

Today on his arrival here, the pope said that while here he will honor the memory of the six million Jews who were victims of the Holocaust. And he again denounced continuing anti-Semitism. The key speech will be later today at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. His every word and gesture there will be intensely scrutinized.

MONTAGNE: And, Sylvia, isn't there also some controversy over the fact that even though he maybe devoting thought to the victims of the Holocaust, the pope will not be actually visiting the Holocaust Memorial Museum?

POGGIOLI: That's right. It has to do with a dispute over the role of the wartime pope, Pius XII. Benedict has praised his predecessor as a great pope and favors making him a saint. But there's a caption inside Yad Vashem Museum which says Pius did not act to save Jews from the Nazis or remained neutral during the Holocaust. The diplomatic solution is that Benedict will not enter the museum and therefore will not see the controversial caption.

MONTAGNE: Now the pope will meet both Israeli and Palestinian officials. He'll also visit a Palestinian refugee camp. Obviously, challenges there.

POGGIOLI: Yeah. It's going to be a very difficult balancing act. And it's a time of great mistrust between the two sides. And, you know, given Benedict's recent communication mishaps his every word must be carefully chosen, because what he says could be easily misunderstood or exploited politically from one side or the other.

On his arrival here, he repeated the Vatican's longstanding position in favor of a two-state solution and securing internationally recognized borders for Israel. And as far as Jerusalem is concerned, the Vatican has always favored the idea of an internationally guaranteed special status for the holy sights.

MONTAGNE: And, Sylvia, you covered Pope John Paul II's visit to Israel nine years ago. How is this visit different so far?

POGGIOLI: Well, the mood and the political situation are very different. John Paul was the first pope to enter a synagogue. He's the one who established diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel. And he came here with a strong message of reconciliation after a tortured 2,000-year-old history between Catholics and Jews.

Everyone remembers the image of the old pope praying at the western wall and leaving a message atoning for Christian anti-Semitism. There was much more hope at that time. It was before the second intifada. The climate today is very tense. The prospects of a peaceful Israeli-Palestinian settlement are very dim.

The differences between the two trips can be summed up in how Israel has dubbed the two security operations. For John Paul, it was Operation Old Friend. For Benedict it's called Operation White Robe.

MONTAGNE: Sylvia Poggioli following the papal visit to the Holy Land.

Thanks very much.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Renee.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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