Visiting the Holy Land with a 'jubilee pilgrimage'


BETHLEHEM, West Bank - They had jostled along the narrow streets that disappear into the dark warrens of the Dheisheh refugee camp, pressing forward to see Pope John Paul II and desperate for words of encouragement.

That was in March 2000. The pope, who died yesterday, promised a new school, and the United Nations promptly built one. In Manger Square, Pope John Paul kissed a bowl of Palestinian soil and said, "Your torment is before the eyes of the world. And it has gone on too long."

Pope John Paul, then 79, was already frail and suffering from Parkinson's disease when he embarked on what he described as a "jubilee pilgrimage" to Jordan, Syria, Israel and the West Bank.

In Israel, he visited the Yad Vashem memorial to the Holocaust and said prayers at Judaism's holiest site, the Western Wall. He also visited Jesus' boyhood town, Nazareth; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City, the site of Jesus' burial; and Bethlehem, the site of Jesus' birth.

Israeli officials got their first inkling that Pope John Paul wanted to visit during a private meeting between the pope and Israel's ambassador to Italy in April 1992. Ambassador Avi Pazner was trying to persuade Vatican officials to establish diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.

"He told me that his most precious dream would be to visit the Holy Land like his predecessor, Paul VI," Pazner said. "He told me he prayed to God every day that this visit might one day become a reality."

The talks proved fruitful, and the Vatican indeed formally recognized Israel on Dec. 31, 1993. "This pope opened a new chapter in the relationship between the Vatican and the Jews," Pazner said, noting a historic visit by the pope to a synagogue in Rome in 1986.

Pope John Paul traveled to Israel and other holy sites in 2000, and it fell to Pazner, who had left his post in Italy in 1995, to show the Israeli public that the visit was in its interest. "Not everybody in Israel was convinced that it was a good thing to have a Catholic pope here," he said. "But I think it was an extremely important and successful visit, both for the pope himself and for the dialogue between Jews and Christians. That's not an easy task."

The pope placed a written prayer in one of the crevices in the Western Wall - in which he asked for peace in the region - and prayed for the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. He then went to Bethlehem and the Dheisheh camp to recognize the plight of the Palestinians.

In Bethlehem, worshipers jammed Manger Square for a Mass outside the sixth-century Church of the Nativity.

"It was an exciting day," said Isam Sharee, who retraced the pope's route on a recent visit to the Dheisheh refugee camp. "I remember that we all had to go and clean the camp beforehand. Actually, we just cleaned the streets where he would walk."

"He told us in his speech that he would help us, and I think he did," Sharee said. "He said he believed in us."

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