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Pope Trod Own Path in Mideast
Unlike John Paul II, Benedict Found the Going Rough at Times

By Howard Schneider and Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 16, 2009

JERUSALEM, May 15 -- Pope Benedict XVI on Friday completed a trip to Jordan and Israel that hewed closely to the tour his predecessor, John Paul II, made to the region a decade ago. Benedict went to many of the same sites, talked to many of the same officials and expressed many of the same sentiments.

But in contrast to John Paul's trip, which was widely hailed by Christians, Jews and Muslims as a groundbreaking journey, Benedict's eight days in the Middle East were marred by some of the same controversy that has occurred throughout his papacy.

The pope's defenders blamed bad luck, bad management or bad public relations for the lukewarm reaction, particularly among some Israelis, to the 82-year-old pontiff. But some critics maintained that a broader pattern has emerged, reflecting Benedict's conservative theology and his cautious approach to dialogue with other faiths.

"Since the start of his papacy, exactly where we're going to go in interreligious dialogue has been a question," said John Borelli, a Georgetown University expert on interfaith relations. This trip, he added, has only made the situation "a little more unclear."

During his week-long pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Benedict shook hands and prayed in all the traditional places, from the Western Wall to the al-Aqsa mosque, mingling easily with rabbis and sheiks, Orthodox Christian prelates in flowing black robes and leaders of the Druze sect in their distinctive red hats.

At what should have been a symbolic high point, however, during his visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, Benedict came across to some Israelis as unemotional and even insensitive, largely because he spoke in general terms of the 6 million Jews who were killed in World War II without mentioning the culpability of his native Germany.

His own involvement as a teenager in the German army, however involuntary and tangential to his life, merely heightened the sense that, if words were missing in what he said, they were missing deliberately.

"To go to Yad Vashem and be a minimalist? He has been slow to recognize the Christian sources of anti-Semitism," said James Carroll, a former priest in the United States whose books focus on the church's need to reform.

In contrast to John Paul's willingness to apologize for historical failings, including Christian anti-Semitism, Benedict is viewed by some liberal Catholics as a staunch defender of the faith who does not believe, in Carroll's words, that the Catholic hierarchy "failed the moral test of the 20th century" by largely remaining silent during the Holocaust.

While John Paul participated easily in interfaith gatherings, including prayers, Benedict has been frank about his discomfort in such settings. Experts say that the two men agreed on the theology of interfaith cooperation, but that John Paul did not feel the need to be as explicit about separating his prayers from those of non-Christians.

Not all of the atmospherics around a papal journey are under the pope's control. Under less strict security, John Paul was visible as he traveled in his "Popemobile." Residents of Jerusalem, Nazareth and other places -- regardless of their faith -- remember their excitement over seeing him in person.

John Paul's visit to Israel was also inherently historic. He had negotiated diplomatic recognition of the state of Israel, granted in 1993 after the signing of the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians. He also spoke freely and emotionally about the Holocaust and World War II. At Yad Vashem, there were Holocaust survivors from his home town in Poland, some of whom had known him as a boy.

Benedict's Yad Vashem appearance was more formulaic, with none of the personal reflection or connection that his successor brought. His travels around Israel were kept in a tight security cocoon that rendered him invisible inside a speeding limousine.

Benedict "was walking in [John Paul's] footsteps both literally and figuratively. He was reinforcing rather than trailblazing," said Rabbi David Rosen, a founder of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel.

Rosen said that he regarded the criticism of Benedict as "not really fair" and noted that before the pope departed Israel on Friday, he decried anti-Semitism in unequivocal terms and made many of the points critics said were missing from his speech at Yad Vashem. If there's a pattern, Benedict's admirers say, it's that his public relations skills are not as strong as his theology -- but that he tends to make up ground once he recognizes a problem.

Doubters, Rosen said, should look at the pope's involvement in a broad interfaith meeting held in Nazareth. Representatives treated their different religious traditions "as a sort of blessing and enrichment, and not as a sort of tension and strife," he said.

At 82, Benedict will not have decades to build a legacy, as did John Paul over his quarter-century as pope. But Catholics here gave him credit for fulfilling one of his chief duties: ministering to members of the faith in the region where Christianity was born.

A minority amid Jews and Muslims in the region, Christians "really live in a very complicated reality, and . . . there was a kind of joy -- you could feel it," over Benedict's presence, said Wadie Abunassar, a local spokesman for the pope's trip. "People felt the Father was among them. This by itself was very important."

Benedict's detailed remarks in Bethlehem about the Palestinian issue were seen as a departure from his predecessor. Though John Paul also supported the Palestinian political movement, Benedict waded into local issues in a way that seemed to criticize specific Israeli policies, such as the construction of a security barrier in the occupied West Bank.

"Everybody who reads the speeches has no idea why suddenly Israel decided to build a wall out of nowhere," said Sergio Minerbi, a senior lecturer at Hebrew University and author of a book on relations between the Vatican and the Zionist movement. "It would be useful if somebody told His Holiness that the wall was the result of a series of terrorist attacks."

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