Pope John Paul II declared that his visit to Israel and the Middle East was a spiritual journey. The pontiff wanted to fulfill a long cherished dream and walk in the footsteps of Christ, 2,000 years after his birth. The pope did just that, with trips to the site of Christ’s birth, baptism and the Sea of Galilee where he began his ministry. Unfortunately, Pope John Paul II also stepped into political controversy upon his arrival. If the visit was spiritually invigorating, it was also frustrating, as politics overshadowed the pontiff’s message of reconciliation.

The trip was laden with symbolism. It marked the first official visit of a pope to Israel; relations with the Jewish country only began in 1993. A predecessor, Pope Paul VI, made a brief stopover in 1964, but he stayed for only 30 minutes and never mentioned the word “Israel.”

Pope John Paul II has made interfaith reconciliation a priority in his papacy. Reaching out to the Jews has been especially pressing given lingering suspicion over antisemitism within the Catholic Church and accusations that the Vatican did not do all that it could to prevent the slaughter of Jews during the Holocaust. The pope, who witnessed the Holocaust as a seminarian in Poland, went to the heart of that sensitive issue during his visit to the Yad Vashem memorial to the victims of the Nazis. In his speech, the pontiff expressed sadness at the “hatred, acts of persecution and antisemitism” directed against Jews by Christians. The comments fell short of the apology some had sought, but his words moved all who heard them. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak hailed the pope’s “noble act” and expressed his gratitude for all the pontiff’s efforts to bridge the gulf between the two faiths.

There were other, less striking, but no less well-intended gestures during the visit. After finishing his sermon at a mass in Manger Square in Bethlehem, the service was interrupted for four minutes by the muezzin’s call to prayer for Muslims. The overlapping of prayers was deliberate, designed to emphasize respect for all religions.

Unfortunately, attempts to move beyond symbolism were frustrated. The interfaith meeting between the pope, a chief rabbi and a Muslim leader only highlighted the difficulties. First, the Muslim official originally invited refused to attend because of Israel’s insistence on its sovereignty over all of Jerusalem. He consented to send a representative, but all the speeches at the event contained politically charged statements and triggered catcalls. In a sad finale, the rabbi and the Muslim leader did not shake hands at the end of the meeting.

Even the meaning of the symbolism was contested. When the pope kissed an urn containing soil from Bethlehem, Palestinians claimed that the act signaled Vatican recognition of Palestinian statehood. Vatican officials demurred, but Pope John Paul’s words left no doubt about his sympathies. During his visit, the pontiff referred to the “torment” of the Palestinian people and said that their “legitimate aspirations” should be immediately met through a negotiated peace agreement. While reminding the world that the Palestinians have a natural right to a homeland, he did not endorse the refugees’ desire to return to their homeland. And the pope urged the Palestinians to stick to peaceful negotiations and to reject violence.

As always, the fate of Jerusalem loomed large over the trip. The city is claimed by three religions and two political authorities — the state of Israel and the Palestinian government. As soon as the pope set foot in Israel, officials meeting him began staking their claims to the city in their remarks to the pontiff.

Fortunately, the pope need not interject himself into the dispute. And even more fortunately, there are signs that the peace process is sputtering forward again. On the eve of his departure, Israel agreed to turn over more land to the Palestinian Authority and officials from the two governments are meeting in seclusion in the United States.

Negotiations are also expected to move forward after U.S. President Bill Clinton meets with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in Geneva later this week. The surprise summit, announced only last week during Mr. Clinton’s visit to South Asia, should give a boost to the stalled peace talks between Israel and Syria. But it is worth noting that Mr. Assad will not appear with Mr. Clinton at a press conference after their meeting. As always, hopes must be kept firmly in check. In the Middle East, reality has a way of intruding on the best of intentions, as Pope John Paul II was reminded last week.

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