Coming Soon: Holy Father, Holy Land?
Pope Benedict is expected to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories next year in a trip significant for political and religious relations in the Middle East, Vatican sources said on Thursday....The current pontificate's first journey to Africa, a March papal pilgrimage to Angola and Cameroon, has already been announced.
It also would help to ease recent tensions between Catholics and Jews over the role of wartime Pope Pius XII, who some Jews have accused of turning a blind eye to the Holocaust.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz said the pope had accepted an invitation by Israeli President Shimon Peres to visit in May.
A Vatican spokesman said he could not comment on the Haaretz report but Vatican sources said discussions were under way.
The Vatican supports Israel's right to exist within secure borders alongside an independent Palestinian state and hopes a papal trip can help political and religious dialogue aimed at a comprehensive Middle East peace.
A trip by the pope to Israel also would help improve Catholic-Jewish relations, strained recently over Pius XII.
Pius, who reigned from 1939 until his death in 1958, has been accused by some Jews of inaction over the Holocaust during World War Two, a charge his supporters and the Vatican deny.
Many Jewish groups have called on Benedict to freeze the process that could one day make Pius a saint until more Vatican archives on the wartime period are opened, with one Italian Jewish leader saying that making Pius a saint before information is available would open a "wound difficult to heal."
At issue is whether Benedict should let Pius proceed on the road to sainthood -- which Catholic supporters want -- by signing a decree recognising his "heroic virtues." This would clear the way for beatification, the last step before sainthood.
Benedict so far has not signed the decree, approved last year by the Vatican office that oversees sainthood cases, opting instead for what the Vatican has called a period of reflection.
The Vatican says that while Pius did not speak out against the Holocaust, he worked behind the scenes to help Jews because direct intervention would have worsened the situation by prompting retaliations by Hitler.
Last month, the Vatican rebuked one of its own officials who said the pope could not visit Israel as long as a controversial caption critical of Pius remained at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem memorial to the Holocaust.
Catholic-Jewish relations also were strained this year by the re-introduction of a prayer used by traditionalists during a Good Friday service that was seen as calling for the conversion of Jews. [The prayer's text was later amended by Benedict himself.]