VATICAN CITY – Meeting American Jewish leaders who were on their way to Israel, Pope Benedict XVI announced Feb. 12 that he, too, was preparing to visit the Holy Land.
A papal trip to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories had appeared to be set for May 8-15 until plans seemed shaken by the late-December escalation of violence in the Gaza Strip and along the Israeli border with Gaza.
The situation has calmed down and the pope told members of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, “I, too, am preparing to visit Israel, a land which is holy for Christians as well as Jews, since the roots of our faith are to be found there.”
Alan Solow, chairman of the conference, told the pope during the audience: “We welcome and appreciate Your Holiness’ planned visit to Israel. The people and leaders of Israel are anxiously looking forward to it, as are we.”
After the Jewish leaders told reporters the trip definitely was back on the papal schedule, a Vatican official confirmed it, although he declined to provide details.
Rabbi David Rosen, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee and a consultant on interreligious affairs for the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, told reporters that he knew from his own contacts that concrete preparations are being made for a May visit.
The rabbi said that after the uproar over the lifting of the excommunication of traditionalist Bishop Richard Williamson, a Holocaust denier, “It is very important for the pope to visit Israel. I think it will be the most dramatic demonstration of his comments” expressed to the Jewish leaders Feb. 12 and publicly in late January that Holocaust denial is unacceptable and anti-Semitism is a sin.
“From that point of view, it is good for the church, good for the Jewish people and good for the state of Israel” that the pope visit, Rabbi Rosen said.
“In my own personal exchange with Pope Benedict XVI today, I said that I’m looking forward to seeing him in Jerusalem and he said, ‘I am looking forward very much to coming and I hope that my visit will be a sign of peace … and would help peace in the region.”