Israel Mum on Papal Criticism Against Its Security Fence

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - The Israeli government remained silent on Monday, following Pope John Paul II's weekend comments, in which he criticized Israel over its construction of a security fence between Israel and the West Bank.

Some 90 miles of the security barrier have already been completed but a new section juts several miles into the West Bank to surround Jewish communities in an area that Palestinians hope to incorporate into a future state.

Israel says it is erecting the fence for purely security reasons, but Palestinians charge that the move is a political one, aimed at grabbing land. Israel has come under heavy international criticism. Washington has backed Israel's right to build the barrier but criticized the route.

Until now, the Vatican has not commented on the matter but during his weekly Sunday address in St. Peter's Square, Pope John Paul II criticized Israel for building the fence, which he said would keep the Palestinians out.

The Pontiff said that many people consider the fence a new obstacle to Middle East peace.

"In reality, the Holy Land doesn't need walls, but bridges," the pope said. He called on both Israeli and Palestinian leaders to "have the courage to restart dialogue and negotiations, thus freeing the path towards a Middle East reconciled in justice and peace."

The Israeli Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the remarks.

But Israeli sources said that the Vatican had never directly complained to Israel about the fence.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon left for a three-day visit to Italy on Monday. He will meet with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Foreign Minister Franco Franttini, and heads of the Jewish community but not with Vatican officials.

Israeli officials said Sharon's visit would focus on bi-lateral relations and the situation in the Middle East. Media reports, quoting unnamed officials, said Sharon would also concentrate on the issue of anti-Semitism.