Pope To Travel To Holy Land With Rabbi And Muslim Leader Pope Francis will head to the Middle East this week to preach peace and has asked two friends from Argentina to accompany him, Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Islamic studies professor Omar Abboud.

Pope To Travel To Holy Land With Rabbi And Muslim Leader

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This week, Pope Francis makes a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It's a region that's seen centuries of religious strife. But this pope, the first in modern times not to come from Europe, will carry far less historical baggage than his predecessors.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: When John Paul II visited Israel in 2000, he prayed at the Western Wall and apologized for the church's sins against Jews. Nine years later, at Yad Vashem, Benedict XVI urged that the names of Holocaust victims never perish, be denied or forgotten.

The Polish and German-born popes carried the weight of their countries' histories; centuries of anti-Semitism in Poland, Nazism and the Holocaust in Germany.

Rabbi David Rosen, director of Interreligious Relations for the American Jewish Committee, says when Jewish and Catholic religious leaders meet, they focus mostly on the past.

RABBI DAVID ROSEN: We have long memories, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, and if you don't encounter Christians on the positive human basis in the here and now, you are often captive to those tragic memories of the past, and that requires quite a lot of time and energy before the necessary healing has effect.

POGGIOLI: But the Argentine-born pope is less interested in history, says John Allen, Vatican analyst for the Boston Globe.

JOHN ALLEN: With Francis, his focus in interreligious dialogue is much more on the present. It's what are the challenges of today - poverty and war - and what can the religions can do together in facing them. It is a mode of interreligious dialogue that is free of the ghosts of the past.

POGGIOLI: In an unprecedented move, Francis asked two friends from Argentina to accompany him to the Holy Land, Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Islamic Studies professor Omar Abboud. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis wrote a book with Rabbi Skorka called "Heaven and Earth." Skorka calls growing up in a cosmopolitan city and going to the same schools created a special bond between people of different faiths.

RABBI ABRAHAM SKORKA: We shared lot of experience - Jews, Christians - learning what means the other. We were not in a closed ghetto, we were in touch one with the other, maintaining each one his own tradition, but knowing that there exist another, that the other can be your friend being other.

POGGIOLI: With Francis, the Catholic Church has the opportunity to present itself with a clean slate, and not just with Judaism.

In September, just months after becoming pope, Western powers appeared ready to go to war over Syria. But Francis declared his opposition, calling a worldwide day of fasting.

It was an anti-war action, says John Allen, that won the pope much goodwill in the Islamic world - in many parts of which the memory of the Christian-led crusades is still alive.

ALLEN: In the Muslim street, the fact that he came out against Western intentions to invade a Middle Eastern Muslim nation, that is Syria, earned him a lot of political credibility.

POGGIOLI: Francis will pray with Syrian refugees in Jordan. He'll then travel to Bethlehem, Jesus' birthplace in the Palestinian territories. Finally, he'll visit Jerusalem. He'll also commemorate the 50th anniversary of a historic rapprochement between the Catholic and orthodox churches. And he'll appeal for an end to the Christian exodus from the Middle East, where more and more Christians are dying in recent conflicts.

In a part of the world, where politics and religion are closely entwined, Francis' every word will be carefully analyzed, as well, Allen says, as his new geopolitical strategy.

ALLEN: His position on Syria at that time was closer to Putin and to China than to the Western powers. To break that centuries-old attachment to the Western powers and to align himself with some of the new rising powers of the world I think said something of the new globality of the Catholic Church.

POGGIOLI: The pope from the global south is forging a new ad hoc diplomacy where the Vatican could play a completely new role on the international stage.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.


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