As Pope Francis was readying to journey to the Holy Land in May, JIIS in conjunction with the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations held a symposium on the topic. The Teddy Kollek Auditorium was packed for the event, which addressed current Israel-Vatican relations, the situation of the Christian communities in the Holy Land and what might be expected from the visit.
Opening the event, Father Dr. David Neuhaus, the Latin Patriarch Vicar, discussed the slated meeting between the pope and Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople (Istanbul). The meeting is part of the process of ongoing rapprochement between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, which began some 50 years ago following a complicated and often painful past that extended over a millennium.
In 1964, Father David said, Pope Paul VI made history when he visited the "land of our roots" [the Holy Land]. “That marked the first time that a pope had gone to meet important personages outside of Italy.” Francis is continuing the effort to “advance unification” for all parts of the Church and end the historic schism. “He will try to break down the partitions, not only within the Christian world but also outside it,” he added. This will be demonstrated by the fact that on his visit he will be accompanied by his friends and partners in the dialogue between the religions from his native Buenos Aires, Rabbi Abraham Skorka (dean of the Latin-American College of Rabbinical Studies in Buenos Aires) and Sheikh Omar Abboud (former secretary-general of the Islamic Center in Argentina).
JIIS’ Dr. Amnon Ramon, a longtime researcher of Christian affairs and one of the coordinators of the symposium, followed that presentation with additional details on the three previous papal visits to the Holy Land, from the perspectives of the Vatican and of Israel. For example, he said, when Pope Paul VI ventured out in 1964, “there were no official relations between the Vatican and Israel. In Israel a decision had to be made about how to receive the pope. The main official reception was held at Megiddo in an attempt to circumvent the problem of Jerusalem which the Vatican had not recognized as Israel's capital.” He stressed, however, that “the leaders of the country, headed by President Zalman Shazar, were certainly excited to receive the pontiff.” Yet in his address, the pope made no mention of the State of Israel, and in his farewell address he praised Pope Pius XII for acting to save Jews during World War II. “He did not hold official talks with Israeli leaders or visit any Israeli national sites, only the Christian holy places.” And upon leaving Israel, a telegram of thanks was sent to "The President, Tel Aviv." The Israeli leaders felt slighted.
Nevertheless, noted Ramon, the visit contributed to the process of recognition by the Holy See that Israel is a permanent entity in the Middle East that cannot be discounted. The following year the Nostra Aetate Declaration marked an official change in the attitude of the Church to the Jewish people, though it was not until 1994 that diplomatic ties between Israel and the Vatican were established.
By the time of the second pontifical visit to Israel, the situation was very different. John Paul II arrived in Israel in March 2000 to much fanfare. Israel was flourishing in terms of its international status (although the second intifada would erupt six months later). The 80-year-old pope was given a grand ceremonial reception in Jerusalem; he met with Israeli leaders, the chief rabbis, visited the Western Wall and Yad Vashem (the Holocaust museum). And on the Palestinian side he met with Chairman of the Palestinian Authority Yasser Arafat, visited Al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount and the Dehaishe refugee camp.
“The visit symbolized the enormous positive change that had taken place in the attitude of the Catholic Church to the Jewish people and to Israel, as well as in Israeli society which was now more open towards the visit of the head of the Catholic Church in the Jewish State,” Ramon explained.
The reception accorded to Pope Benedict XVI for the third pontifical visit to the Holy Land, in May 2009, was much cooler. By now, the peace process was again in crisis and the right wing had recently won the elections in Israel. Moreover, Benedict's German origins raised expectations about his attitude to the Holocaust and the role the Vatican played in that period – he still had not expressly mentioned the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. This led then-Speaker of the Knesset, Reuven Rivlin [recently elected president of the state of Israel], to condemn the pope's speech at Yad Vashem.
Thus the visit highlighted the deep historical tensions between Jews and Christians, Israel and the Church. “It showed that the process of rapprochement between Israel and the Vatican is not a continuous linear process and that we should expect ups and downs in the future too.”
This time, said Rami Hatan, director of the Department of Religions in the Foreign Ministry, Israel was looking forward to welcoming Pope Francis, and to strengthening the ties between Israel and the Vatican. “The relationship between Israel and the Vatican is conducted on two planes: the political and the theological-religious. This year marks 20 years since the establishment of relations between Israel and the Vatican and negotiations are presently underway about a financial-economic agreement, which we hope will be signed in the near future. We also look forward to [jointly] celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Nostra Aetate.” As well as improved relations, another anticipated benefit of the papal visit will be an increase in the number of pilgrims and Christian tourists visiting Israel, he said.
Yisca Harani, a researcher of Christianity in the Holy Land, discussed the connection between the pope's visit and Mount Zion (and the holy places there – the Tomb of David and the Coenaculum, where the Last Supper is thought to have been held according to the Christian tradition). She addressed the concerns about the visit in relation to recent incidents that have taken place on Mount Zion, including rumors that Israel is intending to give these holy sites to the Vatican. While emphasizing the importance of Mount Zion for the Christian world and the many traditions associated with it, she emphasized that “the Mount Zion of today is not the Mount Zion in the biblical sources; not with regard to King David or to Jesus. The Mount Zion of the sources is the Temple Mount. It was most likely Christians in the 4th century, or even earlier, who gave the name ‘Zion’ to the contemporary Mount Zion. Their notion was that the gospel of Jesus would emanate from the Chamber of the Last Supper (‘from Zion shall go forth the Torah’) and not from the destroyed Temple Mount. Thus they took the name Zion from the Bible and assigned it to the Chamber of the Last Supper because, in their perception, the location of the new covenant should be between Jesus and God.”
In 1948, after Israel took over Mt Zion, “David's Tomb became an important Jewish holy site and had great national importance. Ever since, Jews have been praying there regularly. [It is maintained by the Israeli Ministry of Religion and the Coenaculum on the second floor is maintained by the Ministry of Interior.] In recent years, the Franciscans have asked permission to pray in the Chamber of the Last Supper and this request was raised for discussion between Israel and the Vatican in the negotiations over the economic-financial agreement.” But, despite the rumors, she stressed “the Catholic Church has not requested ownership or sovereignty over the site but only the possibility to pray there in an organized liturgical fashion.” Mount Zion has become a hot spot for extremist Jewish groups as a result. “We should aspire to turning Mount Zion into a place where all three [monotheistic] religions can enjoy complete freedom of action ensured by the state, which has adopted, as its motto, freedom of access and of worship in the holy places.”
The symposium was moderated by Hana Bendcowsky, of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations.