As Pope John Paul II proceeds on his Middle East tour retracing the steps of major figures from the Bible, he will find a region where any tribute paid to Peter inevitably has Paul crying robbery. And that has the pontiff walking into the proverbial political minefield a fact underlined by Israel's deployment of some 22,000 security personnel to ensure his safety. John Paul II arrived in Jordan Monday, and flies to Israel Tuesday to continue his pilgrimage.
Israeli leaders are expecting the pope to elaborate, during a visit to the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem, on his recent apology for the Vatican's failure to speak out during World War II against the Nazi genocide. And the bar of their expectations may have been set beyond the Vatican's limit. Israel is also miffed that John Paul II will visit a Palestinian refugee camp outside Bethlehem, where they fear he may make remarks affirming the right of refugees to return to their homes which, in the case of Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, are in Israel. Even Christ's hometown of Nazareth will require some delicate diplomacy: The Israeli authorities have allowed local Muslims to begin building a mosque in the shadow of the Basilica of the Annunciation the site where the Angel Gabriel is said to have appeared to Mary over the objections of local Christians and the Vatican, and tensions may be inflamed by the fact that the local Muslim community has decided to use their temporary tent-mosque on the site during the pontiff's visit to the town.
But all of those issues may look a little trivial compared to Jerusalem a city cohabited uneasily by the three faiths that consider it holy, and claimed as a capital by two nations who've yet to conclude a final peace agreement to end a half century of war. While the Palestinians are chagrined that the pontiff's hosts in the Holy City will be the Israelis, Israel is unhappy that he'll meet with the Palestinian Authority-appointed Grand Mufti on the Temple Mount, a site on which the third-holiest site in Islam the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock is built atop the ruins of Judaism's holiest temple. "The Palestinian Authority will do everything in its power to make the trip appear to confirm its claim on East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, while the Israelis will do everything to prevent that and to stake their own claims," says Beyer. "So the papal visit is likely to see a lot of political jostling."
Still, the pope's objective remains to promote greater understanding among the three faiths whose history converges on Jerusalem. And that's an area in which the city's rival political claimants can use all the help they can get.