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Pope Benedict To Meet With Jews, Muslims


As we just heard, papal visits to the Holy Land are fraught with complications because of the region's political tensions, which is why we called John Allen. He's written two books about this pope, and he's the senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. We reached him in Rome and asked him what message he thought Pope Benedict hoped to deliver.

Mr. JOHN ALLEN (Author, journalist): The first message that Pope Benedict wants to send, both to Jews and Muslims, is that he is a friend, and that whatever controversies have arisen in the relationship have to be seen as secondary, in his mind at least, to this kind of fundamental message of religious solidarity.


And I think both the verbiage of this trip and also the symbolism of it is intended to communicate that. In Israel, Benedict is visiting Yad Vashem, the central Holocaust memorial, which will give him an opportunity to demonstrate sensitivity to the suffering of Jews. Also, in Jerusalem, Benedict will become the first pope ever to visit the dome of the rock, one of the three most holy sites in Islam.

And so, I think his hope is that at the end of this trip, mainstream folks, both in the Jewish and the Muslim communities, will be willing to look past the differences, and to focus on what the three monotheistic faiths have in common.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, some of these stops can only remind one of some of the controversies - separate controversies - that Pope Benedict has been involved in. Do you think he will be able to mend fences on this visit?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, clearly mending fences, both with Muslims and with Jews, is going to be a high priority for Benedict XVI throughout this visit -although diplomatically, actually, it's probably better for the pope that he has had problems with both faiths rather than just one because at least that way, it seems even-handed.

So I think that the challenge for Benedict in that sense, on this trip, is that he wants to do some damage control, but at the same time, he also has challenges he wants to make to both of these communities. With the Muslims and with the Palestinians in particular, he wants to challenge them to embrace religious freedom, including religious freedom for the rapidly disappearing Christian minority in the Middle East.


MONTAGNE: Well, as you've just suggested, the number of Christians, including Catholics, has declined sharply in that region. What do you expect the pope to say about that?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, certainly, what many call the Christian exodus out of the Holy Land is a subject of real and present concern in the Vatican. At the time of the British mandate in Palestine prior to 1948, Christians were about 20 percent of the population.

Today they're less than 2 percent, and many believe that it's a very realistic possibility that Christianity could actually become extinct in the land of Christ. This is something that for all kinds of reasons, spiritual and historical but also political, that the disappearance of the Christian population is a subject of deep angst, I would say, in the Vatican, and the pope will certainly speak to that.

MONTAGNE: When Pope John Paul II went to the Holy Land in 2000, it was a hugely successful trip. How do you think Pope Benedict will be received?

Mr. ALLEN: Broadly speaking, I think the authorities, every place Benedict is going, are determined to make this trip a success for their own reasons: the Jordanians, because they want to be the leaders of moderate Islam; the Israelis because they want to bolster their support in the West; and the Palestinians because they want to use the pope's presence as an opportunity to make their case to the world.

I think the variable here is how well he will be received in the street. There are some at the grassroots in those communities who see Benedict XVI as a fairly ambivalent figure. They're not quite sure where he comes down. And depending upon what they pick up, either in terms of what he says or his symbolic gestures, the - it's entirely possible that you could get some negative reaction at that level. Papal trips are normally highly choreographed, and you can usually script the finale well in advance. But this is one of those rare papal trips in which there really is some drama at stake here, and it really is difficult to say in advance exactly how things are going to go.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. ALLEN: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: John Allen spoke with to us from Rome. He is the author of "The Rise of Benedict XVI: The Inside Story of How the Pope Was Elected, and Where He Will Take the Catholic Church."

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MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.