Pope getting presidential escort for May visit to Holy Land

Israel’s president will escort Pope Benedict XVI around the Holy Land when he visits in May, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Feb. 15, amid strained relations between the Vatican and the Jewish state.

Benedict has tried to reduce tensions between the Vatican and Israel that followed his reinstatement of a renegade bishop who questioned the extent of the Holocaust.

Olmert spoke of the pilgrimage at a Cabinet meeting Feb. 15. “In May of this year, Israel will receive a special visitor, Pope Benedict XVI,” Olmert said, without giving an exact date. “President Shimon Peres will escort him as he visits various sites around the country.”


Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Park East Synagogue in New York presents a delegation of American Jewish leaders to Pope Benedict XVI Feb. 12 at the Vatican. photo/courtesy of the appeal of conscience foundation

Peres, 85, is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has been active in Mideast peace efforts for decades.


The pope told American Jewish leaders Feb. 12 of his plans to visit Israel in the spring, coupling the long-awaited announcement with his strongest condemnation of Holocaust denial.

The 81-year-old pope assured the group that the Catholic Church was “profoundly and irrevocably committed to reject all anti-Semitism,” helping to ease Jewish furor that followed the pope’s reinstatement of an ultraconservative bishop who questioned the extent of the Holocaust.

“The hatred and contempt for men, women and children that was manifested in the Shoah was a crime against God and against humanity,” Benedict told the visiting leaders in English as they sat before him in the frescoed Consistory Hall. “This should be clear to everyone, especially to those standing in the tradition of the Holy Scriptures.”

Jewish leaders applauded his comments, with most saying the crisis with the church over British Bishop Richard Williamson’s comments was over.

“We came here with heavy hearts because of recent events, but we came away pleased and honored by the words of His Holiness,” Malcolm Hoenlein, vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told reporters.

Abraham Foxman, a Holocaust survivor and the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the Vatican should excommunicate Williamson again because of his remarks.

“Every moment that he stays in the church gives him credibility,” he told reporters after the meeting.

“Today’s statement was important, but it did not bring closure,” he warned. “You cannot condemn Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism and reinstate someone who to this day continues to be an anti-Semite and deny the Holocaust.”

In an interview with Swedish state TV broadcast Jan. 21, Williamson said only about 200,000 to 300,000 Jews were killed, and none of them gassed.

Williamson has apologized for causing distress to the pope, but has not recanted his statements.

Benedict’s trip had been planned before the Williamson affair surfaced. He previously visited Israel in 1994 as a cardinal.

Pope John Paul II made the first official papal visit to Israel in 2000, moving many when he prayed at the Western Wall.

The only other visit by a pope, in 1964, reflected the strained nature of the relationship in those years. Pope Paul VI spent only part of one day in Israel, never venturing into Jewish west Jerusalem or uttering the word “Israel” in public.

But while both sides have since forged formal diplomatic ties, the relationship has suffered bumps and strains.

The pope’s trip has been up in the air for some time after a series of spats between the Vatican and Israel. The Vatican is upset with a caption under a photo of World War II–era Pope Pius XII at Yad Vashem, which alleges that Pius didn’t protest as Nazis rounded up Jews in Europe and sent them to their deaths. In turn, Israel was upset when senior Vatican Cardinal Renato Martino said Gaza resembled a “big concentration camp” during Israel’s recent military offensive.