- The Washington Times - Monday, May 11, 2009

JERUSALEM — The Vatican’s white and yellow flag with the keys of St. Peter motif line the streets of this ancient city ahead of Pope Benedict XVI’s arrival Monday.

The trip is laced with controversy and potential political pitfalls that arguably make this voyage Benedict’s most delicate overseas mission yet.

“Benedict XVI is coming as a friend of Israel,” Israeli Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov told reporters while flanked by the mayors of Jerusalem and Nazareth.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat called the pontiff’s sojourn a “historic visit,” dedicated “to dialogue, peace and tolerance.”

The mayor also said he hoped the papal visit will provide fresh impetus for Christian pilgrims to visit a city that “is open to receive and welcome them.”

Nazareth Mayor Ramiz Jaraisy echoed those remarks, saying that Benedict’s trip will be a boost “to ending every form of violence in the region” and a “catalyst for economic development.”

After the welcoming ceremony at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport when he arrives from Jordan, Benedict will attend a reception at the residence of Israeli President Shimon Peres before paying homage at Yad Vashem, the memorial to the Holocaust.

Benedict faces controversy among Jews for his rehabilitation of an ultra-orthodox bishop earlier this year, apparently without being told the bishop was a prominent Holocaust denier.

He will also have to avoid stirring up long-simmering Israeli anger over Pope Pius XII’s role during World War II and doubts over whether he did enough to help Jews escape Nazi persecution.

Highlights of the visit will include interreligious meetings with Jewish and Muslim leaders, a visit to the Western Wall as well as a visit to Bethlehem in the Palestinian territories, to Nazareth and prayers in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre.

Another point of controversy involves the recent Israeli offensive against the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, with some Christians looking to the pontiff for words of condemnation and protest.

They also hope that he will highlight the desperate situation facing both Christians and Muslims in the Gaza Strip.

In Nazareth, where the pope will celebrate a Mass on Thursday, some Muslims last week put up a banner suggesting that Benedict deserves punishment for a 2006 speech in which he quoted a medieval scholar describing Islam as a violent religion.

On Sunday, Benedict celebrated the first public Mass of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land and urged beleaguered Christians of the Middle East to have the “courage” to remain in the strife-torn region.

Speaking to 20,000 people in a homily during the solemn service at the International Stadium in Amman, the Jordanian capital, the pontiff also called on the Church in the Holy Land to continue to set an example by giving priority to “respect” and “dignity” for women in to contrast to what he called a vision of society based only on “profit and exploitation.”

Later, the pope traveled to Bethany on the banks of the river Jordan, where Jesus Christ was baptized. The pontiff made part of the trip on an ecological electric train, riding together with King Abdullah II and Queen Rania of Jordan.

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