Pope to Make Rare Visit to Israel in May, Following Months of Jewish-Catholic Tension

President Peres invites the head of Catholic church in hopes of ending friction over beatification Nazi-era pope.

Pope Benedict XVI is set to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories in May 2009 after accepting an invitation by President Shimon Peres. The Vatican and Israel are said, thus, to hopefully end the high tension of recent months between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people over the initiative of canonizing Pope Pius XII.

This visit, which would be the third visit of a pope to Israel since the establishment of the state, has not yet been officially confirmed.

Peres met about two weeks ago with Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Antonio Franco, the pope's envoy to Israel. Franco told the president that Benedict would respond positively to an invitation from Israel. The president sent the invitation, and a positive response was indeed reportedly received.

Since the visit has not yet been publicly confirmed, no preparations are underway in the Foreign Ministry or the Vatican. However, the Pope's arrival is apparently planned for the second week of May.

The tension began after calls came by ultra-conservatives at the Vatican to expedite canonization on the 50th anniversary of Pius' death. The process began during the time of the previous pope, John Paul II, but both he and the present pope were aware of the harsh criticism such a move could engender in the Jewish world, which accuses Pius XII of remaining silent and not protesting the extermination of European Jewry during the Holocaust.

The debate was fanned by the Jesuit Father Peter Gumpel, who said a month ago that the pope would not visit Israel until a change was made in the caption to two pictures of Pius XII in the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, which state that Pius' response to the murder of Jews during the Holocaust is controversial. The captions also state that when Jews were deported from Rome to Auschwitz, Pius did not intervene.

The caption caused a diplomatic storm in the past when the papal nuncio threatened to boycott the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at Yad Vashem in protest over the caption, although he did attend the ceremony.

The Vatican has since distanced itself from Gumpel's statements. Pope Benedict's spokesman said the caption is not a factor in his decision on whether to visit Israel or not. Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog also contributed to the dispute when he told Haaretz a month ago that Pius' canonization was "unacceptable." The Vatican demanded that Herzog apologize for the statement.

However, Benedict praised Pius' actions during the Holocaust and criticized historians who said he did not help to save Jews. In a meeting a few weeks ago with Jewish leaders, Benedict was asked to delay the canonization process until all the documents in the Vatican archives involving the period of the Holocaust were released, a process that is expected to take about another seven years. The pope told the delegation he was "seriously considering" the matter.

In other meetings at the Vatican, understandings were obtained that the canonization process would not be rushed.

Another source of tension between Jews and the Vatican was Benedict' decision to bring back the ancient Latin mass which calls for the Jews to recognize Jesus. Following Jewish protests and the announcement by Italy's Jewish community that they were severing ties with the Vatican, a representative of the pope said the verse in question was a wish, and not a call on Catholics to missionize among Jews.

The pope is also expected to visit the Palestinian Authority, apparently in Bethlehem. This could be one of the diplomatic obstacles of the visit because of the legal ambiguity of the PA's presidency in light of the struggle between Fatah and Hamas.

Another stumbling block could be a papal visit to Yad Vashem because of the controversial captions. This matter might be resolved by having Benedict visit only the monuments at Yad Vashem, not the museum.

Rabbi David Rosen, head of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations said of the expected visit: "If the information is correct, I am sure the pope will be warmly received by Israel's leaders and its people."

The President's Residence declined to comment on the report. The secretary of the Apostolic Nuncio's office in Israel said he could neither confirm nor deny the report.

Pope Paul VI visited Israel in 1964, even before the Vatican recognized the state. In 2000, Pope John Paul II visited the country.