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The hundreds of thousands of well-wishers that began streaming to St. Peter's Square last Friday, and who will attend the funeral today of Pope John Paul II, came as a surprise to all. Yes, the direct broadcasts on Italian television had their effect. Yes, it is logical that a pope who was the object of such intense media coverage in his lifetime would receive comparable coverage at his death. But even these points cannot explain the willingness of people - only few of whom have strong links to the Roman Catholic Church - to stand for hours in endless lines, only to pass for seconds before the dead man, famous as he may be.

There are several explanations for this phenomenon, and at least one has to do with faith: Those who filled the square were believing people. In Israel, we would describe people who went to an event of the sort that took place this week in Rome as religious, or perhaps traditional. We would describe the others as secular. In Italy, and to a large extent in the entire Catholic world (France is the exception), the definitions are different. The division is between believers and non-believers. The term secular, for instance, serves to describe anyone who does not serve in the Church itself. Secular can be someone who goes to church every Sunday, and secular can be someone who has never shown his face there.

What determined whether a secular individual went to St. Peter's was his internal faith, and not whether he had gone to confession recently. People say that Judaism is founded on commandments, while Christianity is built on faith. But even the different point of origin of Judaism would not have led to the situation that now exists in Israel. Could anyone imagine that a person who does not cover his head in daily life might visit the grave of Rabbi Eliezer Shach? Had the funeral of the Lubavitcher Rebbe taken place in Tel Aviv, would anyone not wearing black have taken part in it? I seriously doubt it. The average secular Israeli looks at what is happening on the other, religious side of the world with total apathy, at best. At worst, he views what is happening there as a threat.

The fact that the secular Israeli recoils at anything that even smells of religion is understandable. Ever since the establishment of the state, religion has been absolutely identified with politics. It began with the choice morsels given in the state education system to the National Religious Party, from the rabbinate that is protected by law and the rabbis who receive their salaries from the state. From there, it extended to the privileges granted to the ultra-Orthodox parties to maintain an independent education system, something that was not permitted to any other body. Anything that smacked of religion, from legislation to a song about the prophet Ezekiel, was the exclusive province of the "religious," in the person of the parties themselves. Secular Israelis were not given a foothold in these places.

After the Six-Day War, with the establishment of Gush Emunim and with the complete identification between religion and the Greater Land of Israel and the settlement thereof, the rupture grew. If being religious means being nationalist, many seculars said, then I don't want to have anything to do with either nationalism or religiosity. The wall grew higher, and grows higher every day, with every demonstration by skullcap-wearing masses against the disengagement.

Many would call this a blessing and would say that it is good that secular Israelis have reached this conclusion. But the situation also deprives the secular of a significant freedom. The freedom to go to sources that were written out of faith, to taste them, to experience them in a manner that is seemly to him, the secular person, without his feeling that as soon as he draws closer to these "things," he becomes a supporter of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef or of settlements.

The ability of the Italian, who in his everyday life meets every definition in Israel of a secular person but can nevertheless choose to go to St. Peter's Square and commune with some expression of his faith, inspires envy. This is a freedom that seems to have been almost completely lost in Israel, and it is a shame.