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


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


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


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


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


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



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.

Vatican's moderate line on Obama has deep roots



When L'Osservatore Romano published an essay this week suggesting that U.S. President Barack Obama's positions on abortion and other life issues "have not confirmed fears of radical changes," it provided the latest confirmation of a glaring difference in tone between the Vatican and the most ardently pro-life circles in the American Catholic church, including a growing number of American bishops.

Can Benedict change the Middle East equation?



At the level of pious rhetoric, the Vatican’s vision for the Holy Land is clear and compelling: A land of two states and three faiths, where Jews, Muslims and Christians live in peace and mutual respect.

That dream, of course, is hardly the reality of the Middle East, suggesting that Pope Benedict XVI’s May 8-15 visit to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories may well be the single most important week of his entire papacy.

The $64,000 question is whether this occasionally PR-challenged pontiff, known more for his grasp of insider Catholic baseball than geopolitics or interfaith sensitivity, can wield the bully pulpit of the papacy in a way that changes the equation on the ground.

The stakes have rarely been higher. Consider the issues awaiting Benedict:

  • The fate of Catholic-Jewish relations in the wake of the fiasco involving the rehabilitation of a Holocaust-denying bishop;

  • Catholic-Muslim ties awaiting a stimulus from Benedict’s first visit to an Arab nation;

  • The ongoing exodus of Christians out of the Holy Land;

The pope is 82. Who's next in line?


Having just celebrated his 82nd birthday, Pope Benedict XVI seems living proof that German machinery is, indeed, built to last. The pontiff shows few signs of slowing down, and as a result, there’s little buzz about possible successors.

The few lists of papabili, possible future popes, making the rounds seem recycled from the end of John Paul’s reign. Irish bookie Paddy Power, for example, has Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice, Italy, as the 6-1 favorite, with Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras at 7-1, Christoph Schönborn of Austria at 8-1 and Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina at 9-1. Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze is tied with Italians Dionigi Tettamanzi of Milan and Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s secretary of state, at 10-1. All were considered front-runners last time, but only Bergoglio had traction.



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September 12-25, 2014


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