Pope John Paul II, the most traveled pontiff in history, continues his efforts to bridge the gap between faiths. It is, many admit, an almost impossible mission. As he embarked on his most recent trip, for example, violence between Muslims and Christians exploded in Nigeria. Yet the worsening religious strife and violence only underscores the urgency of his message.

Last November, the pope visited India, where he encountered the hostility of Hindus offended by the efforts of Roman Catholic missionaries to attract converts. Extremists claim that the missionaries engage in forced conversions. Although Christians are a mere 2.4 percent of the 1 billion people who live in India, they have been victims of appalling violence by rightwing Hindus, including the rape of nuns, assaults on and killings of priests and their families, and destruction of churches. These acts are an affront to the Indian nation, its secular history and its claim to a multiethnic identity.

The pope was forced to walk a thin line. His visit was designed to mark the third millennium of the Roman Catholic Church, an era that the pope claimed would put a priority on Asia. At the same time, he called for tolerance and cooperation between the faiths. Unfortunately, there is little chance of that until India’s political leaders strongly condemn the sectarian violence and apprehend the individuals who are responsible.

Last week, the pontiff embarked on another journey of reconciliation, this time to Egypt. There he deplored the violence that erupted between Christians and Muslims over the New Year, resulting in the deaths of 21 people. He arrived in Egypt amid reports of horrific violence between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, in which hundreds had been killed. After condemning the brutality, the pope met with Grand Sheikh Mohamad Syyed Tantawi, the leading Sunni cleric at the al-Azhar, the 1,000-year-old center of learning that is the highest authority for Sunni Muslims.

Finding common ground among Christians was high on John Paul’s agenda. While there are 3 million members of the faith in Egypt, only 200,000 of them are Roman Catholics. Almost all the rest are Coptic Christians, who have never recognized the Vatican’s supremacy. Pope John Paul met with Coptic Pope Shenouda III, and the two men pledged to try to bring their respective faiths together.

The pope also met with the archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church, repeating the message he has heard throughout his travels in the region. Archbishop Damianos reminded the pontiff that a complete union of Christians will come about only when there is an end to “every form of proselytism, coercion or prejudice.”

The pope’s visit to Egypt was, in some sense, a prelude to his trip to Israel, which is scheduled to begin March 21. After walking in the footsteps of Moses last week during his trip to Mount Sinai, the pope will visit Jerusalem, the holiest place on Earth to three religions. There he will repeat his calls for interfaith reconciliation and cooperation — and wade into the political and religious controversy that tears at the heart of his message of tolerance and peace.

Jerusalem is perhaps the most sensitive issue in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Both sides claim it as their capital and the center of their political and spiritual identities. In recognition of its importance, resolution of the city’s status was always designated the final issue in the peace process, the settlement of which would be made easier by the confidence-building measures that preceded it. That was the theory.

In fact, the negotiations have become no easier. The inevitable compromises of the peace process have embittered both Israelis and Palestinians. Both governments are eager to marshal whatever support they can for their claims to the city. Thus, the Israelis are angry at the Vatican for signing an agreement with the Palestinians last month that recognized the “inalienable national rights” of the Palestinian people and approved giving Jerusalem a special internationally guaranteed status. Rome’s insistence that this addresses only religious issues did not mollify the Israelis. The subject will hang uneasily over the pope’s forthcoming visit.

The pope’s message of tolerance will continue to crash into the reality of religious politics. That is ironic, since political success ultimately depends on compromise, which is based, in turn, on respect for diverging points of view. Soviet leader Josef Stalin once famously asked how many divisions the pope had. The answer is the same now as it was then — none — but Stalin’s political superstructure has totally collapsed, a victim of its own unyielding righteousness. There is a lesson in that.

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