Pope enmeshed in politics during visit to Holy Land

JERUSALEM — The Vatican has repeatedly stressed the spiritual nature of the Pope John Paul II's millennium pilgrimage in the footsteps of Moses and Jesus.

But from the moment the pope arrived Tuesday in Israel, he was immersed in the politics of the region.

A full state ceremony at Ben-Gurion Airport welcomed the pope.

He was greeted on the tarmac by three Israeli children — Jewish, Muslim and Christian — who presented him with a bowl full of earth, which the pope kissed.

Israel's president and prime minister then met the pope while a military band played "Jerusalem of Gold," which celebrates the return of Jewish holy sites after the 1967 Six-Day War.

"Welcome to the Holy Land," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said as he clasped John Paul II's hand in greeting.

The pope's first speech in Israel, which he ended with the Hebrew word shalom, was replete with references both to Jews and Judaism and to the Christian faith.

Citing "the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob," the pope spoke of the "origins of our faith," leaving it up to his listeners to decide if he was speaking of Christianity or of both Judaism and Christianity.

The pope also emphasized the improved relations between the Vatican and the state of Israel.

"Many things have changed in relations between the Holy See and the state of Israel since my predecessor, Pope Paul VI, came here in 1964," he said, referring to a visit in which the late pope had spent less than a day in the country, never mentioned Israel by name and didn't call on any Israeli official.

In contrast, John Paul II was scheduled to call on both chief rabbis and Weizman, and to visit Yad Vashem yesterday.

Shielded by black umbrellas from a cold drizzle, the pope listened as President Ezer Weizman referred to Jerusalem as the "capital of the state of Israel" and "the heart of the Jewish people."

Like most states, the Vatican has never recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital. During his remarks, the pope made no reference to Jerusalem.

On Wednesday, the pope visited the Palestinian-ruled town of Bethlehem. During Mass there, John Paul II made reference to the Palestinian people's right to a homeland.

The "torment" of the Palestinian people "has gone on too long," the pope said at a welcoming ceremony with Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat.

Palestinian officials were quick to take the pope's comments — and indeed his whole visit to the self-rule areas — as a specific endorsement of Palestinian statehood.

But when a Vatican spokesman was asked whether the pope's kissing of a pot of soil presented by a Palestinian child during a welcoming ceremony meant the Holy See acknowledged a Palestinian state, the spokesman said that it was natural for the pope to kiss the soil from Jesus' birthplace.

Vatican policy on a Palestinian state would only be determined after an international decision is made on the matter, the spokesman added.

For their part, Israeli officials downplayed the pope's remarks acknowledging the Palestinians right to a national homeland.

Cabinet minister Haim Ramon said such an acknowledgment had been the Israeli government's policy ever since the peace accord with Egypt was signed over 20 years ago.

"For whoever does not know, an agreement called Camp David was signed" in 1978, he told Israel Radio. In that agreement, Israel "recognized the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people."

The pope's visit to the Dehaisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem on Wednesday was equally sensitive. Palestinian refugees were hoping the visit would promote their demand for a right to return to Israel.

During that visit, John Paul called on regional leaders to find a just solution to the hardships of the Palestinian refugees.

The pope's comments fell short of the clear endorsement of the right of return that the Palestinians had hoped for.

Israel took unprecedented security measures for the visit, including stationing thousands of police officers and detaining right-wing Jewish extremists suspected of distributing anti-pope posters and planning to disrupt the visit.

This week, an Israeli court extended by five days the detention of a fervently religious Jew suspected of arranging a ceremony that called for the death of John Paul II. The suspect, Meir Biranes, admitted to organizing the ceremony at the cemetery in Safed, saying his group wanted to draw attention to their anger over the visit.