'Operation White Cloak': Pope to Meet with Wary Reception in Israel

By Christoph Schult in Jerusalem

Pope Benedict XVI is due to visit Israel next week as part of his trip to the Middle East. But the German pontiff, who has managed to offend both Jews and Muslims in recent years, will get a frosty reception from some. Israeli security forces are taking massive precautions to ensure his safety.

Israeli security officials are trained to respond to crises. But these days they seem much more nervous than usual.

A Palestinian hangs Vatican flags across the street leading up to the Latin Patriarchate in the Old City of Jerusalem. Pope Benedict XVI will arrive in Israel Monday for a five-day visit.
DPA

A Palestinian hangs Vatican flags across the street leading up to the Latin Patriarchate in the Old City of Jerusalem. Pope Benedict XVI will arrive in Israel Monday for a five-day visit.

On Friday, Pope Benedict XVI is beginning a tour of the Middle East which includes a visit to Israel next Monday. When he lands at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport for five days of travelling through the Holy Land, he will be guarded by 80,000 police officers, soldiers and intelligence service agents. In keeping with his papal vestments, the massive operation has been christened "Operation White Cloak."

Every step of the pope's visit will be tracked in minute detail in a security headquarters established especially for the pope's stay. "This visit has national and international implications," says Israeli police commissioner Dudi Cohen. "It's our job to make sure there are no incidents."

Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence agency, is particularly concerned with the possibility of an attack carried out by radical Muslims. Citing those fears, the agency was able to convince the pope to not take his "Popemobile" along the route to Nazareth, where he is scheduled to celebrate mass. Nazareth, the town in which the Bible says Jesus grew up, now has a majority Muslim population. And the pope's visit might remind many of them of the speech he gave in the southern German city of Regensburg in 2006 that unleashed a torrent of protests in the Muslim world.

As part of that speech, the pope dropped an inflammatory quotation from a 14th-century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, about the role of violence in Islam: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

A Pope at War with Islam?

"The pope has declared war on Islam," Sheikh Nazim Abu Salim, the imam of the Shihab-e-Din Mosque in downtown Nazareth, told the Jerusalem Post. As Salim sees it, by visiting the Western Wall, the pope is "legitimizing the occupation" by the Israelis of places in the Old City that are sacred to Islam. Muslims view the Western Wall as being part of the al-Aska Mosque and, according to the radical preacher, Muslims must prevent the pope from entering such sites. Nor does the sheikh exclude the possibility of violence or rioting. "We don't have the power to control people," Salim said. "We can't prevent people from expressing how they feel or the manner in which they express it."

Even many Jews are not welcoming the pope with open arms. During his brief time as pope, he has upset Jews on a number of occasions, and he has done much to set back progress made by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, when it comes to reconciling Christians and Jews. When John Paul II visited the Holy Land in 2000 for a millennium year tour, Israelis welcomed him with great euphoria. But the current pope irritates Jews, for example, by having reintroduced the traditional Good Friday Prayer for the Jews, which asks: "Let us also pray for the Jews: That our God and Lord may illuminate their hearts, that they acknowledge Jesus Christ as the savior of all men."

Another thing that has not warmed Jews to the new pope was when he honored Pope Pius XII on the 50th anniversary of his death -- despite his controversial role during the Nazi era.

But, of course, the record low point in recent Jewish-Christian relations came earlier in the year when Benedict decided to reinstate the bishops of the brotherhood of St. Pius who had been excommunicated in 1988. One of this group's members, the British Bishop Richard Williamson, had expressed doubts about whether the Nazis had used gas chambers in waging their Holocaust against the Jews. It was only after massive protests and calls by Israeli politicians to break off diplomatic relations with the Vatican that the pope finally budged and publicly distanced himself from the radical bishops.

And then there are those Jews who have taken the pope's visit as a perfect time to remind people that, as a boy, Joseph Ratzinger had been a member of the Hitler Youth. "He is an anti-Semite, was a member of the Hitler Youth and returned a Holocaust-denying bishop to the church," Michael Ben-Ari, an ultranationalist member of the Knesset, said Tuesday. But even if this is the personal opinion of a radical politician, the fact is that many Jews strongly object to the fact that a German-born pope, of all people, has shown so little sensitivity when it comes to the issue of the Holocaust.

On his trip, though, the pope will not be going out of his way to avoid the topic. On the very first day of his stay, Benedict will visit Yad Vashem, the official Israeli Holocaust memorial, which is located in Jerusalem. There he will pray, dedicate a wreath and meet with survivors.

The pope had originally planned to not visit the memorial. A museum adjoining the memorial contains a portrait of Pope Pius XII, which has a label underneath it mentioning that he stood idly by as the Jews were persecuted. An emissary of the Vatican had even threatened that Benedict XVI would cancel his trip to Israel as long as Yad Vashem helped promulgate this claim.

In the end, though, the Vatican and Israel agreed upon a classic diplomatic solution: The pope will go to Yad Vashem -- but not into the museum.

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