Pope's Mid-East Pilgrimage

His steps are halting, his hands shake and his voice is frail. No wonder. He is 79 years old, has travelled more than one million kilometres, visited over 120 countries and preached to more people than any religious leader in history, even though he apparently suffers from Parkinson's disease.

Pope's Mid-East Pilgrimage

His steps are halting, his hands shake and his voice is frail. No wonder. He is 79 years old, has travelled more than one million kilometres, visited over 120 countries and preached to more people than any religious leader in history, even though he apparently suffers from Parkinson's disease. Yet throughout his pontificate, now in its 22nd year, Pope John Paul II had not set foot in the Holy Land, that mostly desert area from which flourished three of the world's great religions - Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Had not, that is, until last week. In a historic, six-day pilgrimage that took him to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian-controlled territories, the pontiff finally visited some of the most sacred sites claimed by all three religions - the places where Jesus was born, baptized, crucified and rose from the dead, where Mohammed ascended into heaven and where the Jews have created a nation. And despite the conflicting appeals for his political blessing, John Paul never wavered from his forceful ecumenical and humanitarian message for "peace and justice, not only for Israel, but for the whole region."

Displaying all his well-practised political skills, the Pope managed to please most and offend few as he coped deftly with such issues as the future status of Jerusalem, the future of the Palestinians and the alleged Vatican moral complicity in the Holocaust. After a relatively quiet one-day visit to Jordan, John Paul on March 21 slowly and deliberately walked across the tarmac at Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv to be confronted with millennial-old issues as fresh as that day's sunset. In his welcoming speech, Israeli President Ezer Weizman told the pontiff: "You are arriving this evening in Jerusalem, the capital of the state of Israel (and) the heart of the Jewish world."

The following day in predominantly Muslim Bethlehem on the West Bank, it was the Palestinians' turn as John Paul reaffirmed the Vatican's two-decades-long support for their homeland. He also spoke passionately of Palestinian suffering. "Your torment is before the eyes of the world," he declared. "And it has gone on too long."

Then less than 24 hours later, in a speech at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, the Pope stopped short of apologizing for the Vatican's failure, under Pius XII, to condemn the Nazi Holocaust, but proclaimed: "The Catholic Church is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against Jews by Christians." And so it went throughout the holy pilgrimage as the Pope told Christians, Jews and Arabs enough of what they desperately wanted to hear from the leader of the world's one billion Catholics. "The Pope's very gesture of coming here marks a turning point for Jews and Christians," said Eli Zborowski, a Holocaust survivor who attended the ceremony at Yad Vashem.

Years in the planning - John Paul announced his desire to visit the Holy Land in his first Christmas homily in 1978 - the Pope's pilgrimage was, by any measure, a major event. The Israeli government mounted what one official, police Brig.-Gen. David Tzur, described as the country's "largest, most complicated and most sophisticated" security initiative ever. Code-named "Operation Old Friend," it involved 18,000 police officers and 4,000 soldiers. The visit was also expected to produce a $50-million windfall for airlines and tour operators, thanks to an estimated 60,000 Christian pilgrims arriving from some 71 countries - the largest one-week influx of visitors since the creation of Israel in 1948. And with 2,000 journalists covering the event, Israelis and Palestinians had an unprecedented opportunity to put their political agendas before a worldwide audience.

The trip began in Amman, Jordan's capital, from where the pontiff visited nearby Mount Nebo, upon which the Bible says God showed Moses the Promised Land. (In fact, Jerusalem, 70 km away, is clearly visible from the 800-m mount.) While in the Israeli capital, John Paul visited Weizman's official residence, a symbolic recognition of a country that his predecessors tried to ignore. Equally rich in symbolism was a visit to Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus where the red, black, green and white Palestinian flag flew next to the white and yellow flag of the Vatican over Manger Square. From there, Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat toured the Pope through the nearby Dehaisheh refugee camp, where nearly 10,000 Palestinians, whose families fled their homes in the 1948 war that led to Israel's independence, now live in less than a square kilometre of crumbling squalor. "I greet each one of you," John Paul said, "and I hope and pray that my visit will bring some comfort in your continuing plight."

But even with all the political eddies and currents that swirled around him, the Pope stuck to his message of interfaith harmony and reconciliation. "With newfound openness towards one another, Christians and Jews together must make courageous efforts to remove all forms of prejudice," he said at the outset of his visit. And his displays of profound spirituality clearly had an impact. "I've never experienced anything like it," said Cecile de Nadaillac, 51, a secretary from Paris, after attending the papal mass in Bethlehem. "It's the way he looks at you, even in a crowd."

At Yad Vashem, he met 13 Holocaust survivors from his home town, Wadowice in southern Poland, including Edith Tzirer. In January, 1945, after the liberation of the camp in which she had been interned, the then-14-year-old girl lay sick, starving and near death, but was carried three to four kilometres to safety by a young Polish priest named Karol Wojtyla, the future John Paul. Tzirer sobbed convulsively at the reunion, and later said: "I don't know to this day how he saw me. To tell you the truth, I thought it was God himself who had shown up." And even though some Jewish leaders criticized his speech for not offering a formal apology for the Vatican's official silence during the Holocaust, others were deeply touched. "It was almost a prayer," said Rabbi Ron Kronish, director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council of Israel. "I almost felt he was a modern psalmist."

The Pope concluded his history-making visit in the same hectic fashion as it began - by packing in as many events as possible. In the largest, John Paul said mass before an estimated 100,000 people on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and on Saturday visited Jesus' boyhood town of Nazareth Before his scheduled return to Rome on March 26, the tired but clearly exhilarated pontiff was to have held separate bridge-building meetings with senior Jewish and Muslim clerics, and visited some of their holiest sites, the Dome of the Rock, where Mohammed began his heavenly ascent, and the Western Wall, the only part of the Second Temple to survive the sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. John Paul could not heal the wounds of centuries in a mere six days, but his courage and goodwill made an impression in a holy, though divided, land.

Maclean's April 3, 2000