Controversy Precedes Pope On Trip To Middle East Pope Benedict XVI begins his first tour of the Holy Land this week, with stops in Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. The Vatican says the pontiff will bring a message of peace to the troubled region, but his visit is still stirring controversy among Israelis and Palestinians.
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Controversy Precedes Pope On Trip To Middle East

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Controversy Precedes Pope On Trip To Middle East

Controversy Precedes Pope On Trip To Middle East

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

Pope Benedict XVI arrived today in Jordan, his first stop on his tour of the Holy Land. He'll also visit Israel and the Palestinian territories. It's only the second papal visit to the Jewish state and the occupied territories. It comes nine years after a groundbreaking trip there by Pope John Paul II.

The Vatican says that Pope Benedict will bring a message of peace to the troubled region, but as NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports, his visit has its share of controversy.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: A group of Russian tourists huddle around a guide at Yad Vashem, Israel's official memorial to the Holocaust. Pope Benedict will come here and give a speech. And many Israelis say what he says will be pivotal to how he is perceived in this country.

The pope recently raised the ire of Jews when he rescinded the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying Catholic priest. Also, the pope's a German who was briefly a member of the Nazi youth movement.

Avner Shalev heads Yad Vashem. He says many Israelis want to hear the pope firmly acknowledge what happened to the Jewish people.

Mr. AVNER SHALEV (Chairman, Yad Vashem): He should be more sensitive. He should be more careful with regards how he relates to the events of the Holocaust. Until now, his position is not clear enough. It gives him a great opportunity to deliver this kind of statement, which is so many - important to the believers, to the followers, and I think many other human beings.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Still, whatever the pope says, the church and the directors of the Holocaust memorial site will be at odds. The pope's speech will be made on the grounds of Yad Vashem, but the pope won't be visiting the adjoining museum — in protest over a display that alleges that the wartime pope, Pius XII, did nothing to stop the extermination of the Jews. Pope Benedict has vigorously defended his predecessor's wartime record and supports his canonization.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tourists are also flocking to Bethlehem, another stop on the papal itinerary. Bethlehem has a sizeable Christian community, but it is dwindling. The barrier that Israel is building in and around the West Bank has made life more difficult for the residents of Bethlehem.

Father Marwan Didas, a Palestinian priest who lives in Bethlehem, says every year, more Christian families are leaving the area looking for opportunities elsewhere. He says it's a worry, and he hopes the pope's visit will give Christians here a reason to stay.

Father MARWAN DIDAS (Palestinian priest): The presence of the pope here in the Holy Land, in Bethlehem, would encourage a lot the presence of the Christians in the Holy Land, and would give them a lot of appreciation for their own land.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: After addressing his Christian flock, the pope will visit the mostly Muslim residents of a nearby refugee camp.

I'm now standing at the Aida refugee camp. In front of me is the partition that divides Israel and the Palestinian territories. On the wall is written: Our children will be told what Israel has done. Free Palestine. No for the wall.

The residents here are building a stage right next to it, which the Israelis have threatened to demolish.

Jumah al-Owais is helping to build the amphitheater. He says the idea was to have the huge, concrete slabs of the wall serve as a backdrop for His Holiness's statement.

Mr. JUMAH AL-OWAIS (Palestinian): (Through translator) When the pope comes, the eyes of the world will follow him, and so all the world will see the suffering of the Palestinian people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But Mustafa Jamil, of the refugee camp council, says the stage has become too controversial and the pope won't make his address from it, but from the nearby school instead. Jamil says he's bitterly disappointed that the Vatican caved to what he terms Israeli pressure.

Mr. MUSTAFA JAMIL (Palestinian): (Through translator) We were very excited about the visit of the pope. We prepared this place to receive him, then we were shocked to find out that the pope will not be delivering his speech in the place we had prepared, but somewhere else.

(Soundbite of machinery)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Despite the fact that the stage now won't be used for the papal visit, the Palestinians are still busy at work building it — and the Israelis continue to threaten to demolish it.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Bethlehem.

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