- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2000

JERUSALEM The visit by Pope John Paul II to the Holy Land this week will resonate with political and theological significance for each of the three major religious groups in the region.

For Israel, it will dramatize diplomatic recognition by the Holy See, which refused to have relations with the Jewish state until seven years ago. For the Palestinians, it will bequeath the blessings of the pope, even if indirectly, upon their state-in-the-making. For the Vatican itself, the visit is aimed at buttressing the church's position in an area where Christians are a small minority.

Despite these pragmatic aspects, the most significant aspect of the trip for many is theological.

Trailing clouds of penance, the pontiff will be coming to the homeland of a people with whom he has been boldly attempting to resolve a bitter historic grievance spanning 2,000 years.

Until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, wrote Israeli scholar Geoffrey Wigoder, the Jews were viewed by the church "as a people that were 'rejected' because of their refusal to recognize the divinity of Jesus and the corollary of this was their humiliation and persecution. Their faith was looked on as fossilized, and Christianity was the 'true Israel.' "

The Second Vatican Council published a document, Nosta Aetate (In Our Time), which repudiated the teaching that Jews throughout the ages bore collective guilt for the Crucifixion of Jesus, a charge that had been the basis of Christian anti-Semitism.

The church's new attitude was expanded upon, particularly after the investiture of the present pope in 1979. The church now stresses the Jewish origins of Christianity and no longer views Judaism as a fossil, but as a living faith.

John Paul has termed the Jewish people, theologically scorned only a generation ago, as the "elder brother" of Christianity. He has gone so far as to say that God's covenant with the Jews remained valid, and he has repeatedly declared anti-Semitism to be a sin against God and man.

"Since the 1980s," wrote Mr. Wigoder, "the Catholic Church has taken an active role in the fight against anti-Semitism, so much so that instead of being part of the problem it is now part of the solution."

According to the traditional Catholic view, the Jews were condemned to wander, stateless and despised, as witnesses to the triumph of Christianity. The establishment in 1948 of a revived Jewish state was difficult to reconcile with that view. Even after the church came to terms with this theologically, it could not do so politically.

Fear for the fate of Christians in Muslim countries kept the Vatican from according Israel diplomatic recognition. It was not until the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 between Israel and its Arab neighbors that diplomatic talks got under way between Israel and the Holy See. Relations were established two years later.

"The pope's visit is the visual confirmation of the church's recognition of the sovereign Jewish nation re-established in its ancestral homeland," said Rabbi David Rosen of the Anti-Defamation League.

"Yesterday," said Rabbi Rosen in his Jerusalem office, "the Jews were scorned and treated with contempt and condemned to suffer. Now they are seen as an elder brother. This is a theological revolution.

"The church was seen as a major enemy of the Jewish people. In fact it is the major friend of the Jewish people today. This must surely be one of the most mind-boggling ideological transformation in human history."

It is this that the frail figure of John Paul will symbolize as he makes his pilgrimage through the Holy Land.

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