Pilgrimage and public relations

Pope John Paul's historic visit to Israel is supposed to spread a message of peace, but Israeli and Palestinian spinmeisters are standing by to read in support of their causes.

Published March 22, 2000 2:00PM (EST)

At first the muezzin, a 46-year-old impish little man, with a trim brown beard and sparkling eyes, played it cool.

Pope John Paul II is going to say Mass on Wednesday on Bethlehem's Manger Square -- so what? A few minutes before noon, in the middle of the Mass, the muezzin's voice will boom as usual from loudspeakers on the minaret of the Omar mosque towering over the square, calling Muslims to prayer. The pope will just have to stop in midservice and wait.

"We cannot stop the call to prayer. We will do on that day what we do on other days," said Sheikh Suleiman Aweidah. In fact, he said, Wednesday was supposed to be his day off and he might just let a colleague sing the call in his place.

Muslims outnumber Christians 2-to-1 in the town of Jesus' birth, and the importance of the Catholic pontiff's visit is not as obvious as it would seem to be. In Israel, where the pope's official visit beginning today is a historic first, the meaning of John Paul's mission of peace and reconciliation between Christians and Jews has become secondary to the political role many here hope he will play.

Although people in the Holy Land sometimes seem caught in a time warp, bogged in old rituals and rivalries, the arrival of the pope -- with 2,000 reporters, photographers and television crew members in tow -- signals the opening of a six-day public relations frenzy on the part of Israelis and Palestinians.

Both Israelis and Palestinians hope the pope will intercede on their behalf to secure their competing claims to Jerusalem and uphold their competing rights to live in the Holy Land. They have prepared speeches, pageants and events to touch the frail pontiff's heart and try to sway world opinion. And both sides have lined up public-relations teams ready to pontificate, via e-mail and faxes, on the political meaning of the man's every word and gesture.

Even the muezzin of Bethlehem eventually woke up to the thrilling potential of a billion pairs of ears hearing his voice during the televised papal Mass on Manger Square. "I'll definitely try to be there," said Aweidah, suddenly anticipating the highlight of his career.

Many others will clamor for more pointed attention. Although the 79-year-old pope has presented his trip to the Holy Land as a personal pilgrimage and the culmination of a long spiritual journey, there is almost no chance he will be allowed to pray in peace. John Paul is awaited less as a religious leader and humble pilgrim than as an all-powerful politician -- a sort of super-human mediator between people and that modern-day God which is world public opinion.

"It's a short visit, so we won't have a chance to talk about religion or God," said Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, Islam's grand mufti in the Holy Land who will meet the pope one-on-one. "However, we'll give him a short message about the political situation in Jerusalem," he said, listing a series of Palestinian grievances against Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem since 1967.

John Paul had barely set foot on the Israeli tarmac Tuesday morning, stooped as though he were carrying the weight of the world, when Israel's President Ezer Wiezman was briefing the pope on Israeli policy towards Jerusalem. In his welcome address carried live by the world's television networks, the president called the disputed city, the capital of Israel, the heart of the Jewish people and "the eternal city of the kings and judges of Israel."

The president's words were only one salvo in a media battle over Jerusalem that is just gathering momentum to coincide with the pope's visit. Palestinians already take comfort in the fact that the pope will be spending his nights at the Vatican ambassador's residence in East Jerusalem rather than in Tel Aviv. "This is recognition by the Vatican that East Jerusalem is not West Jerusalem and that the city has not been annexed," said the mufti in an interview last week.

The pope's planned visit to the esplanade of the Dome of the Rock in the company of Palestinian officials Sunday is another diplomatic coup for the Arabs -- and cause for Jewish despair. A group of religious Jews that calls itself the "Temple Liberators" protested Tuesday the papal visit to the esplanade known by Jews -- and worshipped by them -- as the Temple Mount. "The world will see Palestinian flags flying over Temple Mount and in Jerusalem," objected one protester. "If the Israeli flag were flying on the Mount," the protester asserted, "he wouldn't come."

At the same time, the pope has offered Israelis cause for cheer by scheduling a visit to the Western Wall, the Jewish holy site in Jerusalem's disputed Old City, and a courtesy call to the Israeli president's Jerusalem residence. Both gestures underline the dramatic improvement in relations between the Catholic leadership and the Jewish state since John Paul established full diplomatic ties in 1994. (When his predecessor Pope Paul VI was in town in 1964, the pontiff ignored all rules of protocol and pointedly refused even to say the word "Israel" during his brief, unofficial trip).

Thus, depending on the time people switch on their televisions, the pope might appear to be supporting either the Palestinian or the Israeli position on the coveted city. In fact, the Vatican has stated that it believes the status of Jerusalem should be decided in final peace talks later next year and has repeatedly rejected unilateral decisions by either side. But images speak more loudly than words.

Besides being deployed like a holy relic in the battle over Jerusalem, the pope will be drawn into the boggy depths of the Palestinian refugee question Wednesday when he visits the Dheisheh refugee camp. Israelis are weary that the pope will make some kind of public statement in favor of the refugees' right to return to the homes they were forced to flee in the 1948 and 1967 wars -- Palestinians hope he will.

Many of the camp's 10,000 Muslim residents have been busy for days now painting slogans about their "sacred right" on banners and gathering photographs of refugees killed by Israeli soldiers during the Intifada, the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank. The idea behind the elaborate side show they have planned is to provide the pope -- or, more likely, the world's cameras, waiting for the popemobile -- a glimpse of their long suffering.

"Our hope and dream is that the pope will do something to move the situation forward in the best interest of the refugees," said Hossein Shahin, the camp director. "We believe that the pope has great influence on the international community -- as a holy pope, respected by everyone around the world." But Shahin doesn't really expect the pope to make a long emotional speech in favor of the refugees. "It's enough for the pope to be here, to stand in front of our people," he said. "The political message is clear."

There is one venue however where the pope's words will matter more than his presence: at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial where he is scheduled to speak on Thursday. John Paul has already knelt down in prayer at Auschwitz, visited a synagogue (in 1986 in Rome) and issued apologies on behalf of fellow Christians for sins committed against the Jewish people during the Inquisition and the Holocaust. He has done more in his 22-year papacy than anyone else before him to mend relations between the world's 1 billion Catholics and 13 million Jews. But Jewish religious leaders would like him to go deeper into the Catholic church's mea culpa and explicitly condemn the silence of Pius XII during the Holocaust.

Whether John Paul will satisfy them is doubtful -- some claim an explicit condemnation of Pius XII by another pope would be tantamount to undermining the foundations of the Catholic faith. But he has promised to try.

"I pray that my visit will encourage the increase of interreligious dialogue," said the pope upon his arrival in Israel. The pope wishes to broadcast a message of brotherhood and religious tolerance in a land fraught with tensions, but few may be capable of hearing it over the political brouhaha.

By Flore de Preneuf

Flore de Preneuf is a Jerusalem writer and photographer.

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