Vatican

Pope strikes new balance in the Old City

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Jerusalem

One theme of Pope Benedict XVI's week-long visit to the Holy Land has been outreach to both Muslims and Jews, and today brought the week's most delicate balancing act: Visits to both the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall, neighboring sites in Jerusalem's Old City sacred to Islam and Judaism, respectively, as well as meetings with both the city's Grand Mufti and Grand Rabbis.

Though Benedict XVI has met both Muslims and Jews before, meeting them both on the same day, and in two of the holiest sites on earth for each faith, was a novelty.

At the level of symbolism, Benedict tried to offer just the right touch in both places.

At the Dome of the Rock, a sanctuary housing the rock from which Muslims believe Muhammad ascended to Heaven, Benedict removed his shoes. (The fact that he didn't take them off at the Hussein-bin-Talal mosque in Jordan, even though his hosts told him he didn't need to, caused a brief frisson.)

The pope and Hitler Youth (Benedictís words)

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Jerusalem

During a press briefing in Jerusalem today, the Vatican spokesperson, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, chided reporters for repeating what he called a falsehood – namely, the claim that the young Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, was once a member of the Hitler Youth.

"The pope was never in the Hitler Youth: never, never, never," Lombardi said.

Unfortunately for Lombardi, his assertion is contradicted by a fairly unimpeachable source: the future pope himself.

Before proceeding, a necessary caveat: The historical evidence is overwhelming that Joseph Ratzinger’s family was ferociously anti-Nazi, and that the future pope was appalled by the arrogance and destructiveness of National Socialism. He was never a Nazi party member, entered an auxiliary unit of the German army only when forced to do so, and deserted before war’s end. He was an American prisoner of war in a camp near Ulm, Germany, before being released and returning to his seminary studies.

Benedictís timeless touch noble, but tricky

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Jerusalem

News Analysis
tPope Benedict XVI's visit yesterday to Yad Vashem, Israel's main Holocaust memorial, had been billed coming into this trip as a make-or-break moment, a key test of whether the pontiff could mend fences with Jews after several recent setbacks. This morning, the lead commentary in Haaretz, Israel's leading daily, carried this reaction: "Benedict's speech showed verbal indifference and banality."

tSafe to say, that's not exactly the headline the Vatican was hoping for.

tTo be sure, other Jewish commentators so far have been far more positive, accenting the importance of the pope's choice to visit Yad Vashem and his firm commitment to Holocaust remembrance. A striking number of critical voices, however, saw the visit as a missed opportunity. (Notably, those voices included the chairman of the board of directors at Yad Vashem.)

At Yad Vashem, what pope doesn't say makes waves

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Jerusalem

Pope Benedict XVI has long been a figure who draws mixed reactions, with many admiring his clarity and intellectual depth, and others turned off by his traditionalism and occasional lack of a popular touch.

The pontiff's keenly anticipated visit today to Yad Vashem, the main Israeli Holocaust memorial, is likely to become another chapter in Benedict's mixed reviews. Some are likely to see it as a stirring poetic meditation on memory and justice, while others will probably be more struck what the pope didn't say than what he did.

Pope in Israel mends fences, but doesn't pull punches

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Tel Aviv/Jerusalem, Israel

Especially in light of the recent uproar about Benedict XVI's rehabilitation of a Holocaust-denying bishop, a key drama heading into his visit to Israel was whether the pontiff's need to mend fences with Jews would blunt his message about a just resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, especially the "two-state solution."

Another way of putting that question is whether Benedict would emphasize the past or the future, the memory of the Holocaust or the present reality of the Middle East. Today the pope seemed to provide an answer, which was: He'll do both.

Pope calls on Mideast Christians to perservere

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Amman/Bethany beyond the Jordan

If the opening two days of Pope Benedict XVI’s stop in Jordan, the first leg of his Middle East swing, were largely devoted to outreach to Muslims, the pontiff’s third day was clearly for the Christians – not only in Jordan, but the entire Middle East region.

To sum up the pope’s message to this embattled flock in a single word, it was “persevere.”

The pope celebrated Sunday Mass in a downtown sports stadium in Amman this morning, where the crowd included not only Jordanians but also Iraqis, Lebanese, Syrians, and Christians from other countries in the region. In the afternoon, the pope visited Bethany beyond the Jordan, a site associated with the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in the Jordan River.

Christians in this part of the world certainly needed the shot in the arm that a papal visit represents, since demographically speaking, their very survival is at stake.

Even in Jordan, Christian-Muslim ties not always easy

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Amman, Jordan

Successful PR usually pivots on a simple storyline, and in a sense both the Vatican and the Jordanians are trying to offer just such a storyline during Pope Benedict XVI’s three days in the country: Jordan as a moderate Islamic nation that proves a “clash of civilizations” isn’t inevitable.

Yesterday, for example, Benedict told King Abdullah II that Jordan’s commitment to inter-faith dialogue has confounded “the predictions of those who consider violence and conflict inevitable.”

Talking to ordinary Jordanians, both Muslim and Christian, there seems a fair bit of truth behind this rosy picture. By and large, they say, the country’s Muslim majority and its small Christian minority live in harmony, and the Hashemite monarchy here goes to great lengths to protect Jordan’s image as an open and tolerant place. (For example, eight percent of the seats in Jordan’s parliament are reserved for Christians, even though they represent only about three percent of the population.)

Drilling beneath the surface, however, it’s clear that nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

Benedict XVI sets new papal record for mosque visits

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Amman, Jordan

The late Pope John Paul II reigned so long and did so much that it’s difficult to imagine Benedict XVI surpassing his records in most areas, especially after a scant four years in office. Today, however, Benedict moved past John Paul II in one telling category: He’s doubled his predecessor’s total of mosques which he actually entered.

Late this morning, Benedict visited the Hussein bin-Talal mosque in the Jordanian capital of Amman. That makes two mosque tours for Benedict XVI, after a visit to the legendary Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, in late 2006. Though John Paul made appearances at many mosques over the years, he only entered one – the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria, in 2001.

Emphasis on Islam makes pope's trip an original

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Amman, Jordan

From the outside, it might be tempting to see Pope Benedict XVI's trip to the Holy Land this week as a replay of John Paul II's celebrated March 2000 performance, only with a less charismatic pontiff in the starring role. The fact that Benedict has chosen to start by spending three full days in Jordan, however, offers a clue that something is clearly different.

Benedict landed in Amman this afternoon, opening his keenly anticipated May 8-15 swing through Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

Nine years ago, John Paul spent only 24 hours in Jordan. As it happens, Jordan is the first Arab country Benedict has visited, and his comparatively lengthy stay points to an important insight: Islam looms far larger today than the last time a pope came to the Holy Land.

Two epochal events have combined to propel Islam to the forefront of Catholic consciousness. In short-hand fashion, one might call them 9/11 and 9/12.

Pope's Holy Land pilgrimage a huge roll of the dice

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Rome

Benedict XVI's first book as pope was a meditation on the Gospels titled Jesus of Nazareth, and last year he convened a synod of bishops entirely devoted to the Bible. For this pope in particular, the places, people and events of the Holy Land are deeply ingrained in both his spirituality and his intellectual interests, making his May 8-15 trip to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, which opens tomorrow, a long-awaited pilgrimage -- probably the last chance for the 82-year-old pontiff to walk in the footsteps of Christ.

The trip is also, however, a huge roll of the dice.

While most papal activity is highly choreographed and often quite predictable, this is one of those rare ventures where almost anything could happen. The trip could be a smoldering disaster or a stunning triumph. Or, it could be far less dramatic -- little more, perhaps, than a series of polite photo-ops and mushy diplomatic language. It all depends on how things shake out.

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June 16-29, 2017

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