Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – On his first day in Israel Benedict XVI confronts sensitive issues that affect the country and the Middle East like peace, the Holocaust, human rights, the rights of the Palestinians, security, free access to and preservation of the Holy Sites, as well as relations between Israel and the Holy See and the responsibilities of religions: a direct approach to answer questions his visit might raise.
As soon as he landed at Lod’s Ben-Gurion Airport the Pontiff pleaded “with all those responsible [in government] to explore every possible avenue in the search for a just and lasting peace,” demanding respect for every person and forcefully condemning the Holocaust, issues that are very important in Israel.
In Jerusalem he addressed other sensitive issues for the country, first and foremost, that of security, which is a matter of mutual trust in his view, but also the role religions can and must play in building peace.
By taking the bull by the horns Benedict XVI naturally spoke on his first day in Israel about the most sensitive issue, the Holocaust.
“It is right and fitting that, during my stay in Israel, I will have the opportunity to honour the memory of the six million Jewish victims of the Shoah, and to pray that humanity will never again witness a crime of such magnitude,” he said.
Later, in the afternoon he travelled to Yad Vashem, the Memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, a complex that includes a history museum, an art gallery, a ‘Hall of Names’ with the names of the millions of murdered Jews as well as the list of Jewish communities wiped off the face of the earth and an archive—in the centre, the Hall of Remembrance, a concrete building shaped like a tent illuminated in the middle by an eternal flame surrounded by the names of 22 extermination camps, the final resting place for the ashes of some the victims of the crematoria.
“May their suffering never be denied, belittled or forgotten!” said the Pope, who delivered a brief speech in the Hall of Remembrance, placed a wreath of lowers and met some holocaust survivors.
“The Catholic Church,” he said, “feels deep compassion for the victims remembered here. Similarly, she draws close to all those who today are subjected to persecution on account of race, color, condition of life or religion—their sufferings are hers, and hers is their hope for justice. As Bishop of Rome and Successor of the Apostle Peter, I reaffirm—like my predecessors—that the Church is committed to praying and working tirelessly to ensure that hatred will never reign in the hearts of men again.”
At one point the Pontiff passed by a picture of Pope Pius XII whose caption refers to his alleged “silence” during the Holocaust, a claim rejected by Catholics because of old and new documents that show how unfair the charges are. Perhaps when Benedict made a passing reference to his predecessors he was also referring to this matter as well.
In addition to the Holocaust, the Pope addressed the issue of security, something that deeply concerns Israelis, during his meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the President’s Jerusalem residence.
As he did when he greeted the Holy Father on is arrival in the morning at the airport, Peres again indicated how important for Israel’s leaders the papal visit is by describing it as “an opportunity”.
The president, who spoke about friendship and referred to the Pope’s visit as a trip of peace, defended his country’s democratic election, talked about the Holocaust, and repeatedly welcomed his guest with the traditional Hebrew greeting of Shalom. An all girls’ choir sang during the ceremony and the Pope planted a tree in the gardens of the President’s Residence.
“My pilgrimage to the holy places is one of prayer for the precious gift of unity and peace for the Middle East and all of humanity. Indeed, I pray daily for peace born of justice to return to the Holy Land and the entire region, bringing security and renewed hope for all.” The “Sacred Scripture also presents us with an understanding of security. According to the Hebrew usage, security—batah—arises from trust and refers not just to the absence of threat but also to the sentiment of calmness and confidence.”
Hence, “lasting security is a matter of trust, nurtured in justice and integrity, and sealed through the conversion of hearts which stirs us to look the other in the eye, and to recognize the ‘Thou’, as my equal, my brother, my sister. In this way does not society itself become the ‘fruitful field’ (Is, 32:15) marked, not by blocks or obstructions, but by cohesion and vibrancy? Can it not become a community with noble aspirations where all are willingly afforded access to education, family housing and the opportunity for employment, a society ready to build upon the lasting foundations of hope?”
By way of conclusion, the Pope turned “to the ordinary families of this city, of this country. What parents would ever want violence, insecurity, or disunity for their son or daughter? What humane political end can ever be served through conflict and violence? I hear the cry of those who live in this land for justice, for peace, for respect for their dignity, for lasting security, a daily life free from the fear of outside threats and senseless violence. And I know that considerable numbers of men and women and young people are working for peace and solidarity through cultural programs and through initiatives of compassionate and practical outreach; humble enough to forgive, they have the courage to grasp the dream that is their right.”
In discussing about peace and responsibility, the Pope told religious leaders attending the ceremony at the President’s Residence that they must “be mindful that any division or tension, any tendency to introversion or suspicion among believers or between our communities, can easily lead to a contradiction which obscures the Almighty’s oneness, betrays our unity, and contradicts the One who reveals himself as ‘abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’ (Ex, 34:6; Ps, 138:2; Ps, 85:11).”