Vatican-Israeli Relations Tested Prior to Pope's Visit

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israeli-Vatican relations are being tested less than a month before Pope John Paul II is scheduled to visit the Holy Land, but religious leaders say there is no strain on the relationship.

"Everything that is going on in the news will affect the visit on one level," but it won't affect the Pope's "over-arching mission," Ron Kronish, the director of the Inter-religious Coordinating Council in Israel told

That mission, he said, is to "bring peace and reconciliation" to the region and a "culmination of the relationship between Catholics and Jews."

The Vatican's representative in Israel, Pietro Sambi, raised the ire of many Israelis when he suggested in a weekend television interview that the Vatican was justified in demanding international guarantees for the holy places in Jerusalem.

Referring to a document signed by the Pope and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat two weeks ago, Sambi inferred that Israel restricts Palestinians' religious freedom by not permitting unlimited access to Jerusalem.

"You know that not all Muslims from Gaza can go to the [al-Aksa] Mosque and not all Christians from Bethlehem can go to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher whenever they want to," Sambi said.

Since Israel reunited Jerusalem under its sovereignty in 1967, it has by law guaranteed the rights of worshippers of every religion to visit and pray at their holy sites. It does, however, control access to Jerusalem for security reasons.

The Vatican, like most foreign governments, does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the eastern section of Jerusalem, including the ancient Old City where holy sites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are located.

Sambi touched on another tender subject when he said that he believed the wartime pope, Pius XII, had done all he could to protect Jews during the Holocaust.

"I am convinced that a strong condemnation would only have increased Hitler's persecution of the Jews," Sambi said.

Pope Pius has been criticized for not openly condemning Adolf Hitler and his genocidal policies.

Although Israel reacted strongly to the wording in the PLO-Vatican accord, it will not allow that disagreement to get in the way of the Pope's historic visit, according to the Foreign Ministry.

"From a logistical standpoint, it's a major, major operation," ministry spokesman Akiva Tor told "It's a tremendous opportunity for increasing understanding between Jewish people and Catholics."

The Hebrew-language media outlets report on the upcoming papal pilgrimage almost daily. Articles and editorials alternate between descriptions of the spare-no-expense preparations for his arrival and the criticisms - small and large - that have arisen regarding the visit.

Possible tainting of the visit have been appearing in the area. There has been anti-Pope graffiti in an ultra-religious neighborhood. The Pope's giant mass will be held on the Sabbath requiring security personnel to work and violate Jewish religious law. And there are differences over exactly where the Pope will meet with Israel's chief rabbis.

However, Rabbi David Rosen, Israeli director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the way the Pope's visit will be received depends on the "spin" applied by the media. He argued a "disproportionate focus" has been put on the negative aspects so far, including the PLO-Vatican document.

Rosen said the PLO-Vatican accord had been in the works for years and its contents should not have come as a surprise to any informed person. He conceded that there was an "understandable resentment" in Israel for the document's reference to "unilateral decisions" regarding Jerusalem.

Nonetheless, Rosen said the present attitude of the Vatican was an "incredible transformation" and that he hoped this would be appreciated.

He quoted the late Israeli scholar Geoffrey Wigador as saying the "Catholic Church is part of the solution" to the problem of anti-Semitism.

Over the last 100 years, the Catholic Church has made a complete about-face from the official policy that said Jews were condemned to wander eternally. Since the time of the 1965 Nostra Aetate declaration that condemned anti-Semitism, the church's relations with the Jewish people and Israel have been warming.

The Pope began his pilgrimage to the lands where Biblical events took place by traveling to Egypt last week. He will return to the Middle East on March 21st to continue his Holy Land tour with stops in Jordan, Israel and areas under the Palestinian Authority.