Sanders at Vatican says rich-poor gap worse than 100 years ago


Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, addressing a Vatican conference on social justice on Friday, decried the “immoral” gap between the world's rich and poor that he said was worse than a century ago.

The Democratic hopeful from Vermont has campaigned on a vow to rein in corporate power and level the economic playing field for working and lower-income Americans who he says have been left behind, a message echoing that of Pope Francis.

The trip is inconveniently timed for 74-year-old senator, coming four days before a Democratic party primary in New York. A loss there would blunt his momentum after winning seven of the last eight state contests and give front-runner Hillary Clinton a boost in her drive to the party's presidential nomination.

Sanders said in his speech to the Pontifical Academy of Social Science that the Roman Catholic Church's first encyclical on social justice, written in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII, lamented the enormous gap between the rich and the poor.

“That situation is worse today. In the year 2016, the top 1 percent of the people on this planet own more wealth than the bottom 99 percent,” the self-described democratic socialist said.

“At a time when so few have so much, and so many have so little, we must reject the foundations of this contemporary economy as immoral and unsustainable,” he said.

Sanders, the Brooklyn-born son of Polish Jewish immigrants, has said the trip was not a pitch for the Catholic vote but a testament to his admiration for Pope Francis, whom he is not expected to see during his flying visit.

He will be back on the campaign trail on Sunday.

CHANTS OF “BERNIE, BERNIE” AT VATICAN GATE

After reading the speech in the academy building inside the Vatican grounds, Sanders walked outside one of the city-state's gates to talk to reporters and was greeted by chants of “Bernie, Bernie, Bernie” from a vocal group of local supporters.

Pope Francis sent a message to the academy, saying he had wanted to meet the conference participants in the evening, but could not because he is leaving Rome early on Saturday to visit refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos.

Saying he was “proud and excited to be here”, Sanders praised the pope's visionary views about creating “a moral economy, an economy that works for all people and not just for the people on top”.

Reflecting the themes of his campaign, he said he and the pope both agreed that “we've got to ingrain moral principles into our economy and there is no area where that is clearer than the area of climate change. The greed of the fossil fuel industry is literally destroying our planet”.

Pope Francis wrote a major encyclical, or papal treatise, last year on the need to respect the environment.

In other parts of his speech, Sanders decried “reckless financial deregulation,” including rules on political party financing, that he said had “established a system in which billionaires can buy elections” in exchange for laws that would make them only richer.

“Rather than an economy aimed at the common good, we have been left with an economy operated for the top one percent, who get richer and richer as the working class, the young and the poor fall further and further behind,” he said.

Sanders will spend less than 24 hours in Rome before returning to the campaign trail before the New York primary on Tuesday.

Sanders to attend Vatican conference on social, environmental issues


Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders accepted an invitation to visit the Vatican for a conference on social, economic and environmental issues, his campaign said.

“Pope Francis has made clear that we must overcome ‘the globalization of indifference’ in order to reduce economic inequalities, stop financial corruption and protect the natural environment. That is our challenge in the United States and in the world,” Sanders, who is Jewish, said in a statement Friday confirming his attendance at the April 15 event, Reuters reported.

Sanders’ announcement came as the pope called for a Church that was less strict and more compassionate towards “imperfect” Catholics.

The senator from Vermont is planning to head to Rome immediately after a high-profile debate scheduled with Hillary Clinton on April 14, the Washington Post reported. He’ll speak at the gathering hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Sanders said.

“I think the Vatican has been aware of the fact that, in many respects, the pope’s views and my views are very much related,” Sanders told the Post. “He has talked in an almost unprecedented way about the need to address income and wealth inequality, poverty and to combat the greed that we’re seeing all over this world, which is doing so much harm to so many people. … For me, it is an extraordinary honor to receive this invitation.”

Pope expected to visit Auschwitz during trip to Poland in July


Pope Francis is expected to visit the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz during his visit to Poland in July, the Vatican said.

The Vatican spokesman, speaking during the presentation of a book by a 90-year-old Italian Holocaust survivor on Wednesday night, said the visit was “highly probable”.

Francis will be in the southern Polish city of Krakow in July for an international jamboree of Catholic youth.

Auschwitz, which is the German name for the Polish town of Oswiecim where the camp is located, is about 65 km (40.39 miles)from Krakow.

Both of Francis' predecessors, Pope Benedict, a German, and Pope John Paul, a Pole, visited Auschwitz during their pontificates.

Francis visited Rome's synagogue earlier this month and said the Holocaust, in which some 6 million Jews were killed, should remind everyone of the need for the “maximum vigilance” in the defense of human rights.

Vatican: Catholic Church must not try to convert Jews


The Vatican says the Catholic Church must not try to convert Jews to Christianity.

Instead, the Catholic Church must work with Jews and Jewish institutions to further dialogue and mutually understand and fight anti-Semitism, according to the Vatican, which pledged “to do all that is possible with our Jewish friends to repel anti-Semitic tendencies.”

The statements came in a major document released Thursday by the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. It was issued to mark the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, a declaration promulgated in 1965 by the Second Vatican Council that opened the door to formal Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

The new document, titled “The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable,” discussed at length how Christianity is rooted in Judaism. Because of this, it said, the Church is “obliged to view evangelization to Jews, who believe in the one God, in a different manner from that to people of other religions and world views.”

It added, “In concrete terms this means that the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.”

Goals in Jewish-Catholic dialogue, according to the document, include “joint engagement throughout the world for justice, peace, conservation of creation, and reconciliation” in a way that would make the religious contribute toward world peace. “Religious freedom guaranteed by civil authority is the prerequisite for such dialogue and peace,” it said.

“In Jewish-Christian dialogue the situation of Christian communities in the state of Israel is of great relevance, since there — as nowhere else in the world — a Christian minority faces a Jewish majority,” the document said. “Peace in the Holy Land — lacking and constantly prayed for — plays a major role in dialogue between Jews and Christians.”

Among other goals, the document said, were “jointly combating all manifestations of racial discrimination against Jews and all forms of anti-Semitism, which have certainly not yet been eradicated and re-emerge in different ways in various contexts.” It particularly stressed the need for “unceasing vigilance and sensitivity in the social sphere” and called for tangible joint Jewish-Catholic cooperation, such as in charitable activity to help “the poor, disadvantaged and sick.”

Pope Francis to visit Rome synagogue for first time


Pope Francis will make his first pontifical visit to Rome's Great Synagogue next year, the Vatican and the city's Jewish community said in statements on Tuesday.

Francis, who had a good relationship with the Jewish community in his native Argentina, will go to the synagogue on the bank of the Tiber River on Jan. 17 for the first time since he was elected pope in 2013.

He will be the third Roman Catholic pontiff to visit the seat of Rome's Jews after his predecessor Benedict and John Paul II.

Vatican signs first treaty with ‘State of Palestine’, Israel angered


The Vatican signed its first treaty with the “State of Palestine” on Friday, calling for “courageous decisions” to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and backing a two-state solution.

The treaty, which made official the Vatican's de facto recognition of Palestine since 2012, angered Israel, which called it “a hasty step (that) damages the prospects for advancing a peace agreement”.

Israel also said it could have implications on its future diplomatic relations with the Vatican.

The accord, which concerns the Catholic Church's activities in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority, also confirmed the Vatican's increasingly proactive role in foreign policy under Pope Francis. Last year, it brokered the historic resumption of ties between the United States and Cuba.

Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican's foreign minister, said at the signing that he hoped it could be a “stimulus to bringing a definitive end to the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which continues to cause suffering for both parties”.

He called for peace negotiations held directly between Israelis and Palestinians to resume and lead to a two-state solution. “This certainly requires courageous decisions, but it will also offer a major contribution to peace and stability in the region,” he said.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Al-Malki said he hoped it would help “recognition of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, freedom and dignity in an independent state of their own, free from the shackles of occupation”.

The Vatican is particularly keen to have a greater diplomatic role in the Middle East, from where many Christians have fled because of conflicts in Syria, Iraq and other countries.

There are about 100,000 Catholics of the Roman and Greek Melkite rites in Israel and the Palestinian territories, most of them Palestinians.

Gallagher said the agreement “may serve as a model for other Arab and Muslim majority countries” with regard to freedom of religion and conscience.

The U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution in 2012 recognizing Palestine as an observer non-member state. This was welcomed at the time by the Vatican, which has the same observer non-member status at the United Nations.

Since then the Vatican has de facto recognized a “State of Palestine” and the pope referred to it by that name when he visited the Holy Land last year.

Some 135 members of the United Nations recognize Palestine, nearly 70 percent of the total. By comparison, 160 of the UN's 193 members recognize Israel.

Last October, Sweden became the first major European country to acknowledge Palestine, a decision that drew condemnation from Israel and has since led to tense relations between the two.

The European Union as a whole does not recognize Palestine, taking the same view as the United States that an independent country can emerge only via negotiations with Israel, not through a process of unilateral recognition.

Will Vatican’s Palestine reference impact Jewish-Catholic ties?


When considering the Vatican’s creep toward recognition of Palestinian statehood, think “Israel-Vatican” and not “Jewish-Catholic,” say Jewish officials involved in dialogue with the church.

A May 13 announcement on an agreement regarding the functioning of the church in areas under Palestinian control raised eyebrows in its reference to the “State of Palestine.”

The upset was compounded by confusion over whether Pope Francis, in a meeting over the weekend with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, praised him as an “angel of peace” or urged him to attain that vaunted status. On Tuesday, a Vatican spokesman said it was “very clear” that the pope was “encouraging a commitment to peace.”

But the Vatican’s shift from terming its Palestinian partner as the Palestine Liberation Organization — the designation Israel accepts — to calling it Palestine comports with a shift in Europe toward accommodating Palestinian statehood aspirations, the Jewish officials said.

Referring to a State of Palestine was “disturbing, but not critical,” Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, said in an interview with JTA.

Catholic-Jewish relations and diplomacy between Israel and the Vatican are “on different tracks,” Foxman said.

Israeli officials, speaking anonymously, said they were “disappointed” in the use of State of Palestine.

“Such a development does not further the peace process and distances the Palestinian leadership from returning to direct bilateral negotiations. Israel will study the agreement and consider its next step,” an official told the French news agency AFP.

A number of congressional Republicans also expressed “disappointment” in the pope, Politico reported.

Marshall Breger, a professor at the Catholic University of America’s School of Law who has led a number of Jewish dialogues with other faiths, said the use of the term Palestine was the product of an evolution in how the international community is treating the Palestinian question.

“De facto, the Vatican has accepted Palestine as a state,” he said. “It just adds one more country to the over 130 that have recognized Palestine.”

The issue is a matter of diplomacy and does not breach the sensitive issues under discussion between Jews and Catholics as they mark the 50th anniversary of the Nostra Aetate, the declaration that absolved Jews of responsibility for Jesus’ death, Breger said.

“It’s a minor event,” he said. “It should not interfere with Jewish-Catholic relations.”

Using Nostra Aetate as a basis, Jewish and Catholic officials over the years have addressed problematic references to Jews in the Catholic liturgy and the role of the Vatican during the Nazi period.

Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, told The Washington Post that the “Palestine” reference amounted to “appeasement of radical Muslims” and signaled “the historical Catholic enmity towards Jews.”

For the most part, however, Jewish organizations dealing with the Vatican were concerned about the statement, but only insofar as it represented another success in efforts by the Palestinians to secure statehood recognition outside the context of negotiations with Israel.

“We are fully cognizant of the Pope’s good will and desire to be a voice for peaceful coexistence, which is best served, we believe, by encouraging a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, rather than unilateral gestures outside the framework of the negotiating table,” David Harris, the American Jewish Committee director, said in a statement.

Weighing in with similar statements were the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Union for Reform Judaism.

When the Vatican launched talks with the Palestinians in 2000, it referred to the other side as the PLO, but over time shifted to Palestine. Pope Francis in his 2014 visit to Israel and the West Bank spoke of “my presence today in Palestine” during a Bethlehem stop and referred to “the good relations existing between the Holy See and the State of Palestine.”

Daniel Mariaschin, the director of B’nai B’rith International, said the recognition of Palestine raised concerns, but they must be seen in the context of an increased willingness in Europe to recognize Palestinian statehood and not of Jewish-Catholic relations.

He likened it to the French and British parliaments recent nonbinding recognitions of Palestine and Sweden’s decision to recognize Palestinian statehood.

“It’s important, I won’t dismiss it, but it shouldn’t be seen outside that broader context,” Mariaschin said. “It raises the expectations of Palestinians to unmeetable levels and frustrates the Israelis who say we can’t get a fair deal in the international community.”

Obama administration officials continue to maintain that recognizing Palestine outside the context of peace talks is counterproductive. However, prompted in part by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s seeming election eve retreat from supporting a two-state solution, they now will not count out withholding the U.S. veto should the U.N. Security Council consider a Palestinian statehood resolution.

Seymour Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who also has been involved in Jewish-Catholic dialogue, said the Palestine recognition should serve as a “wake-up call” for Israel.

“It doesn’t affect [Vatican] relations with Israel at all,” Reich said.

Instead, he argued, Vatican recognition of Palestine is another manifestation of European disaffection with Benjamin Netanyahu’s hawkish policies and the expansion of settlements.

“It just puts more pressure on the Israeli government,” Reich said.

Vatican move on Palestine adds fuel to European debate


The Vatican's decision to recognize the state of Palestine in a treaty for the first time has drawn a stern response from Israel, but it may usher in a freer debate in Europe about how to proceed on the vexed Palestinian question.

The Holy See has referred to Palestine since 2012, but the treaty concluded on Wednesday, which covers the Church's activities in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority, marks a more formal recognition, which Vatican officials said they hoped would benefit Israeli-Palestinian ties in time.

An Israeli foreign ministry official described the Vatican's move as a “disappointment” and indicated that it may lead to reprisals, although he did not say of what kind.

“This does not promote the peace process and a Palestinian return to negotiations,” the official said. “Israel will study the agreement and consider its next steps accordingly.”

The Vatican, increasingly proactive in foreign policy under Pope Francis, is far from the only state to have recognized Palestine — 135 members of the United Nations already do so, nearly 70 percent of the total. By comparison, 160 of the UN's 193 members recognize Israel.

Last October, Sweden became the first major European country to acknowledge Palestine, a decision that drew condemnation from Israel and has since led to tense relations between the two.

The European Union as a whole does not recognize Palestine, taking the same view as the United States that an independent country can emerge only via negotiations with Israel, not through a process of unilateral recognition.

But with the last talks between Israel and the Palestinians having broken down more than a year ago, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu having pledged the day before his reelection in March that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch, diplomats are wondering what options they have left.

TWO STATE ALTERNATIVES

Last year, an EU foreign minister visiting the region asked during closed-door meetings whether it wasn't time to drop the goal of a two-state solution — the bedrock of peace negotiations since the mid-1970s — and consider alternatives.

They could include the unilateral recognition of Palestine by the EU as a whole or member states, which might spur Israel into tackling issues long unresolved with the Palestinians.

Another option, favored by some high-profile Israelis, including President Reuven Rivlin, is a one-state solution, which would involve one nation with equal rights for Jews and Arabs living in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.

While a radical proposal — would it be a Jewish state if more than half the population is Muslim? How would Islamists in Gaza accept it? — it has begun to be mentioned in some corners of Brussels, if only as a way of putting pressure onIsrael to think hard about what the future holds.

Ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers on Monday, one senior EU diplomat said the time was drawing near when the 28-country bloc might have to acknowledge that a two-state solution cannot be reached.

“Ministers need to have an informed discussion,” the diplomat said. “Part of that is to say: 'OK, the two-state solution is dead.”

If Israel's primary objective is to maintain the status-quo, pursuing a one-state solution would put Tel Aviv under considerable pressure, he added. “That scares the hell out of most Israelis, but that is the consequence of walking away from the two-state solution … accepting a one-state solution.”

The United States has long been the critical driver of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and shows no signs of shifting from the two-state goal.

But the Obama administration has expressed frustration with Netanyahu's policies, including continued settlement building on land the Palestinians seek for a state.

And after Netanyahu declared there would be no Palestinian state on his watch, citing risks that he linked to the regional spread of Islamist militancy, the White House said it would “reassess” its policy toward Israel.

Netanyahu has since tried to backtrack on his comments, made in the thick of an election campaign he thought he was about to lose, though many European and U.S. diplomats think the pledge he made actually reflects how he thinks.

The Vatican's move may not spur an immediate shift in Europe. But the Holy See's deputy foreign minister said he hoped it would encourage the international community “to undertake more decisive action to contribute to a lasting peace and to the hoped-for two-state solution”.

The senior EU diplomat echoed that point, saying it was time for the EU to take a greater leadership role.

“We need proposals to support peace, but also we need to look at what leverage Europe has, what steps Europe could take to exert pressure on Israel,” he said.

Vatican, FIFA, EU put Israel in center of diplomatic storm


This story originally appeared on The Media Line.

The Palestinian decision to internationalize their conflict with Israel seems to be paying off as Israel is coming under diplomatic pressure on several fronts at the same time. The Vatican decision to recognize “Palestine” as a state, an expected French-sponsored resolution to the United Nations Security Council, and the possible expulsion of Israel from FIFA, the international soccer federation, are creating the sense that Israel is losing the diplomatic battle.

“There is a sense of erosion,” a senior Israeli official told The Media Line on condition of anonymity. “We see more and more countries and organizations buying into the unilateral logic of the Palestinians.”

But he warned, ultimately it will not be possible to create a Palestinian state without Israeli approval.

“No matter how much the Palestinians obtain in declarations and international organizations it can’t replace negotiations,” he said. “Palestinians have given up on negotiations and we believe it’s a huge mistake.”

The latest decision by the Vatican to sign a treaty with the state of “Palestine”, concerning the Holy See’s activities in the Palestinian Authority, comes before a weekend meeting between the Pope and the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. It is an important symbolic move by the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. At the UN, the Vatican and Palestine are both considered non-member observer states. In a statement, PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi welcomed the decision.

“The significance of this decision goes beyond the political and legal into the symbolic and moral domains and sends a message to all people of conscience that the Palestinian people deserve the right to self-determination, formal recognition, freedom, and statehood,” she said in a statement.

Some Israeli analysts said the move by the Vatican, while purely symbolic, was nevertheless important.

“It’s a big deal because the Pope is the spiritual leader of hundreds of millions of Christians,” Eytan Gilboa of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University told The Media Line. “Christians are being murdered all over the Middle East but what is important for him is the particular recognition of Palestine.”

But others said that Israel should be more concerned about its relationship with the US, then with the Vatican.

“This has basically been Vatican policy all along,” Amiel Ungar, an Israeli commentator. “The big enchilada is how much the Obama administration is behind the European moves.”

France is expected to soon present a new resolution to the UN Security Council to recognize Palestine. In the past, the US has vetoed all such resolutions, but after the election of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has said it will “reassess” that decision.

The guidelines of Netanyahu’s new government does not include any mention of a Palestinian state, a change from the previous government. A group of former European leaders and diplomats has called for more pressure on Israel, and charges that EU political and financial aid has achieved nothing but the “preservation of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and imprisonment of Gaza”.

At the same time, the Palestinians have been campaigning in FIFA, the international football federation, to suspend Israel’s membership or to level sanctions on Israel for limiting the free movement of Palestinian soccer players and refusing them permission to travel abroad. The 200 national leagues in FIFA are expected to vote on the resolution in the coming weeks.

All of this is expected to lead to growing international pressure on Israel, but it could also end up backfiring and encouraging Palestinians to stay away from the negotiating table.

“Israel has only three cards it can use with the Palestinians – giving up territory, international recognition, and the release of Palestinian prisoners,” Eytan Gilboa said. “But if they get the recognition without any negotiations, what motivation do they have to negotiate with Israel?”

Vatican officially recognizes ‘State of Palestine’ in new treaty


The Vatican concluded its first treaty that formally recognizes the State of Palestine, with an agreement on Catholic Church activities in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority, the Holy See said on Wednesday.

The agreement “aims to enhance the life and activities of the Catholic Church and its recognition at the judicial level,” said Monsignor Antoine Camilleri, the Vatican's deputy foreign minister who led its six-person delegation in the talks.

The text of the treaty has been concluded and will be officially signed by the respective authorities “in the near future,” a joint statement released by the Vatican said.

Vatican officials stressed that although the agreement was significant, it certainly did not constitute the Holy See's first recognition of the State of Palestine.

“We have recognized the State of Palestine ever since it was given recognition by the United Nations and it is already listed as the State of Palestine in our official yearbook,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said.

On November 29, 2012 the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution recognizing Palestine as an observer non-member state. This was welcomed at the time by the Vatican, which has the same observer non-member status at the UN.

During a three-day visit to the Middle East a year ago, Pope Francis delighted his Palestinian hosts by referring to the “state of Palestine,” giving support for their bid for full statehood recognition.

The four-person Palestinian delegation was led by the Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Rawan Sulaiman.

In an interview with the Vatican's official newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, Camilleri said he hoped the agreement would indirectly help the Palestinian State in its relations with Israel.

“It would be positive if the accord could in some way help with the establishment and recognition of an independent, sovereign and democratic State of Palestine which lives in peace and security with Israel and its neighbors,” he said.

Pope to host Peres and Abbas in peace prayer at Vatican


Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will join Pope Francis in a prayer for peace at the Vatican.

The prayer will take place on June 8, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi confirmed Thursday, according to Vatican Radio.

The pope made the invitation following the celebration of Mass in Manger Square in Bethlehem during his visit last week to the Palestinian West Bank city. A rabbi and a Muslim imam will be present at the service, the pope reportedly said.

In his invitation, the pope said, “I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer.  …  All of us want peace. Many people build it day by day through small gestures and acts; many of them are suffering, yet patiently persevere in their efforts to be peacemakers.”

Later, he added, “Building peace is difficult, but living without peace is a constant torment. The men and women of these lands, and of the entire world, all of them, ask us to bring before God their fervent hopes for peace.”

The offer comes a month after the collapse of nine months of U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Peres will leave office at the end of July.

Pope’s Mideast trip a delicate dance around politics


With a Rabbi and a Muslim leader in tow, Pope Francis makes his first visit to the Middle East on Saturday, a delicate mission to push his vision of inter-religious dialogue as a vehicle for peace in the region.

But, in a region where religion and politics are inextricably intertwined, the three-day trip to Jordan, the Palestinian Territories and Israel will set the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics on a diplomatic tightrope.

All of his actions and words – from his meetings with Palestinian and Syrian refugees, to his encounters with Christians whose numbers are dwindling in the Holy Land, to his talks with national leaders – will be closely watched for their political significance.

Even the pope's official program touches on the raw sensitivities that pervade Middle East politics. It calls the second leg of his trip, a six-hour stop in Bethlehem, a visit to the “State of Palestine”, a terminology Israel rejects.

“We are not very happy about it, but it is a fact (that the Vatican is using the term),” said Oded Ben-Hur, a senior diplomatic adviser to the Israeli parliament and former ambassador to the Vatican.

In 2012, the Vatican angered Israel by supporting a vote in the United Nations' general assembly to give Palestinians de-facto statehood recognition. Israel argues such a move should only come through negotiations.

The Vatican backs a two-state solution to the conflict, with secure borders for Israel, but there are divergent views over the future status of Jerusalem.

DISPUTED CITY

The Vatican wants international guarantees protecting Jerusalem as a city sacred to Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem and the Holy City, which Israel captured in the 1967 war, as the capital of their future state, while Israel says the city is its “united and eternal” capital. Most states, including the Vatican, have not recognized this and keep their embassies in Tel Aviv.

In a stark illustration of the complexities of the political situation, instead of making the short overland ride from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, Francis will fly by helicopter to Tel Aviv and then take another helicopter to Jerusalem.

To underscore his conviction that all three great monotheistic faiths can live together in the region and help to budge the political stalemate, Francis has enlisted a rabbi and an Islamic leader to be part of a travelling papal delegation for the first time.

The two – Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Omar Abboud, director of the Institute for Religious Dialogue in Buenos Aires – are friends from when Francis was cardinal in his native Argentina.

Their presence is “an extremely strong and explicit signal” about the importance of inter-religious dialogue in the region, the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said.

Skorka will be in the Palestinian Territories and a key Islamic site in Jerusalem, while Abboud will be at the Western Wall sacred to Jews and the Yad Vashem memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.

Francis, only the fourth pope to visit the Holy Land, will spend little more than 32 hours in Israel but, with 16 events, the final leg of the tour will be the most packed and has stirred the most controversy and security concerns.

THREATS TO CHRISTIANS

Threats to Christians have been scrawled by suspected Jewish radicals on Church property, acts Archbishop Fouad Twal, Jerusalem's top Catholic official, said had “poisoned” the atmosphere.

One read “Death to Arabs and Christians and all those who hate Israel”.

Israeli security forces, fearing that radicals might carry out a major action against the Christian population or institutions, issued restraining orders against several Jewish right-wing activists for the duration of the trip..

In Jerusalem, Francis will visit most of the sites associated with the last days in the life of Jesus, including the site where Jesus is said to have been buried, and also meet Jewish and Muslim leaders separately.

Security will also be heightened because the pope has ruled out using bulletproof vehicles and wants to use an ordinary car, as he does in Rome.

“That does not leave us a lot of leeway,” Ben-Hur said, adding that so-called “sterile areas”, where access by the public will be highly limited, will have to be larger.

The visit is also much shorter than those by Pope John Paul II in 2000 and Pope Benedict in 2009. The brevity has disappointed local Christians because fewer will get to see him.

The trip, which starts in Jordan on Saturday, is intended to mark the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI's meeting in Jerusalem in 1964 with Patriarch Athenagoras, the spiritual head of the world's Orthodox Christians.

That meeting marked a turning point in relations between the two branches of Christianity that split in 1054 and will be commemorated in the pope's meetings with Bartholomew, the current Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch..

Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; editing by Ralph Boulton

Pope shuns bulletproof vehicles for Mideast trip, Vatican says


Pope Francis is shunning bulletproof vehicles during his trip to the Middle East this month, insisting that he use a normal car and be allowed to be as close to people as possible, the Vatican said on Thursday.

The Vatican, briefing reporters on the trip, also confirmed that a rabbi and an Islamic leader will accompany Pope Francis on his trip to the Middle East in a gesture of the importance he attaches to inter-religious dialogue.

Francis will visit Jordan, the Palestinian Territories and Israel during the May 24-26 trip, his first as pope to the region.

“The pope wants an open popemobile and a normal car. The local security official took the desire of the pope into consideration,” said chief spokesman Father Federico Lombardi.

“I don't think there was too much discussion about that,” he said, hinting that local security officials had suggested the use of bulletproof vehicles but were over-ruled.

Francis' predecessors were driven in bulletproof limousines on their trips, whether just around Rome or abroad. Heads of state visiting the Middle East tend to use bulletproof cars.

Francis instead uses a blue Ford Focus in Rome and during his trip to Brazil last July, he was driven around Rio de Janeiro in a small silver Fiat at his own request.

At times during that trip security broke down and police were unable to control the crowds, who surrounded the car. Lombardi said he did not expect similar scenes in the Middle East because Catholics are a minority there.

Lombardi also said the Vatican was not overly concerned by threats to Christians scrawled by suspected Jewish extremists on church property in the Holy Land.

On Monday, “Death to Arabs and Christians and all those who hate Israel” was daubed in Hebrew on an outer column of the Office of the Assembly of Bishops at the Notre Dame Center in East Jerusalem.

Francis is due to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Notre Dame Center, located just outside the walls of the old city, on the last day of his trip.

HATE CRIME

Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported that Israeli security services fear that Jewish radicals might carry out a major hate crime against the Christian population or institutions to drum up media attention during the Pope's pilgrimage.

But Lombardi said he was not aware of any particular security concerns for any part of the trip.

The rabbi and Islamic leader who will be part of the official delegation are friends from Francis' days in his native Argentina, where he was archbishop of Buenos Aires before he was elected the first non-European pope in 1,300 years in March, 2013.

The pope invited them to make the trip with him in order to send what Lombardi called “an extremely strong and explicit signal” about the importance of inter-religious dialogue in the region which has seen so much conflict.

Rabbi Abraham Skorka wrote a book in 2010 with the future pope on inter-faith dialogue. The Muslim friend, Omar Abboud, is director of the Institute for Religious Dialogue in Buenos Aires.

Abboud will join the delegation in Amman and make the entire trip and Skorka will join in Bethlehem, skipping the first day because it falls on the Jewish Sabbath.

They are expected to accompany the pope to all of his events, Lombardi said, meaning Skorka will be in the Palestinian Territories and a key Islamic site in Jerusalem, while Abboud will be at the Western Wall and the Yad Vashem memorial to the Holocaust.

The trip, only the fourth visit by a pope to the Holy Land since biblical times, marks the 50th anniversary of a historic trip to the region by Pope Paul VI. Pope John Paul II visited in 2000 and Benedict XVI went in 2009. 

Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

Pope Francis visit to Israel going forward despite diplomats’ strike


Pope Francis is going ahead with his visit to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority in May, despite a strike by Israeli diplomats.

The Vatican on Thursday released the program for the papal trip, scheduled for May 24-26.

The pope will have an intensive series of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders as well as Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim religious leaders. He also will celebrate religious services and make public speeches.

The general strike called Sunday by employees of Israel’s Foreign Ministry has shut down the country’s 103 embassies, consulates and diplomatic missions around the world.

Francis will fly to Amman, Jordan, on May 24, and meet with King Abdullah II and Queen Rania, address Jordanian authorities, celebrate Mass in a stadium and meet with “refugees and young disabled people.”

The pope will leave Jordan the next day and fly by helicopter to Bethlehem for a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whom the Vatican statement referred to as “the President of the State of Palestine.” Francis will address Palestinian authorities and celebrate Mass in Manger Square, as well as  meet with children in three refugee camps.

Francis will then fly by helicopter to Jerusalem, where he will meet with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople and sign a joint declaration. That evening, in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, an ecumenical meeting will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras in 1964.

On May 26, Francis will visit the grand mufti of Jerusalem and give an address. Then he will visit the Western Wall and lay a wreath at Mount Herzl. He also will visit and speak at Yad Vashem before meeting Israel’s two chief rabbis at the Heichal Shlomo Centre next to the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem.

Later the pope will meet separately with Israeli President Simon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He will depart for Rome that evening, following other meetings and a Mass with priests and other religious leaders.

Netanyahu-pope meeting at Vatican explores Middle East, papal trip to Israel


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Pope Francis in their first face-to-face meeting talked about the Middle East and plans for a papal trip to Israel, among other issues.

Also at Monday’s closed-door, 25-minute audience at the Vatican, Netanyahu presented the pope with a book about the Spanish Inquisition written by his father, the late historian Benzion Netanyahu.  The dedication read, ”To the great pastor and guardian of our common heritage.”

The Vatican said in a statement that the talks focused on the “complex political and social situation in the Middle East, with particular reference to the reinstatement of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, expressing hope that a just and lasting solution respecting the rights of both parties may be reached as soon as possible.”

During the meeting, Netanyahu reiterated the invitation to the pope to visit Israel that was extended earlier by Israeli leaders. Media have reported that the pope may make the trip in late May, but Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said no date for such a visit had been set.

Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, who also attended the audience, reportedly told the pope, “We are expecting you, we can’t wait.”

The Vatican statement said that “aside from indicating the Holy Father’s plans for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land,” the pope and Netanyahu considered “various questions” regarding the status of Christians in Israel.

It said they also discussed lingering financial and other questions that have stalled full implementation of a formal bilateral agreement between Israel and the Holy See “in the hope that the Agreement which has been in preparation for some time may be concluded forthwith.”

Following the meeting, Netanyahu held bilateral talks with his Italian counterpart, Enrico Letta.

Netanyahu on Sunday night lit Hanukkah candles at Rome’s main synagogue, where he reiterated warnings about the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Netanyahu kindled the menorah with Letta.

Speaking at the ceremony, the Israeli leader repeated his warnings that the recent deal on Iran’s nuclear program was a “historic error.”

Letta said he “knew Israel’s positions, doubts and fears.” He said the current economic and social crisis fed “extremism, hate and intolerance,” and he pledged to resist the “racism, intolerance and xenophobia” that were growing in Italy “in a worrying manner.”

Bibi’s gift to Pope Francis: A book on when the church persecuted the Jews


Sounds like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a lovely meeting with Pope Francis.

They talked for about a half-hour, focused on peace talks and touched on Iran. Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, encouraged Francis to visit Israel. And Netanyahu gave the pope a book with the inscription, “To his Holiness Pope Franciscus, a great shepherd of our common heritage.”

The one slightly uncomfortable part may have been that the book was about one of the worst things the Catholic Church has ever done to the Jews.

Awkward!

The book was “The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain,” the scholarly magnum opus written by the prime minister’s late father, Benzion. The in-depth tome on the Spanish Inquisition describes how the church persecuted, and often executed, masses of Jewish converts to Catholicism who were accused of secretly practicing Judaism.

Maybe the gift was yet another reminder from Netanyahu about the dangers of ignoring an existential threat to the Jewish people (read: Iran). Maybe the pope is an avid student of history.

Or maybe, in an age where a Jewish prime minister can meet cordially with the pope, it’s a sign of just how far we’ve come.

Vatican culture minister tweets Lou Reed tribute, then a clarification


The Vatican’s culture minister tweeted a tribute to the iconic Jewish-born singer Lou Reed, then a clarification that he did not condone drug use.

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi on Monday tweeted a verse from Reed’s song “Perfect Day.” Reed died Sunday at 71 of complications following a liver transplant.

On @CardRavasi, the clergyman wrote, “Oh, it’s such a perfect day/ I’m glad I spend it with you/ Oh, such a perfect day/ You just keep me hanging on (Lou Reed).”

While the lyrics seemingly refer to a love story, the “you” also has been interpreted as being heroin — as some of the replies to the tweet noted.

In his following tweet, Ravasi also mentioned Reed and clarified that he did not condone drugs. He warned against “illusions” and quoted the Bible verse about reaping what you sow, noting that Reed himself had used that line in “Perfect Day.”

Ravasi’s tweet before his Lou Reed tribute also quoted a Jewish cultural figure, the Israeli writer Amos Oz. He tweeted, in Italian, “I never saw a religious fanatic with a sense of humor. Nor a person with a sense of humor becoming a fanatic. (Amos Oz)”

Francis pledges to further Jewish-Catholic dialogue


Pope Francis reaffirmed his commitment to fighting discrimination and furthering Jewish-Catholic dialogue.

During an audience at the Vatican Thursday with a 60-member delegation from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Francis said that he has “repeated many times, in recent weeks, the church’s condemnation of any form of anti-Semitism.”

Such condemnations were just part of the solution, he said, noting that Christians remain persecuted in some regions.

“I would like to underline that the problem of intolerance must be faced in its entirety,” he said, according to an official English text of his address released by the Vatican. “When any minority is persecuted and marginalized on account of its religious beliefs or ethnic origin, the good of society as a whole is placed in danger, and we must all consider ourselves affected.”

The church has raised particular alarm about discrimination and violence against Christians in some Arab countries.

“Let us unite our strengths to promote a culture of encounter, of mutual respect, understanding and forgiveness,” Francis said, stressing that education was key in transmitting experience, and not merely knowledge, to the younger generation.

“We must be able to transmit to them not only knowledge about Jewish-Catholic dialogue, about the difficulties overcome and the progress made in recent decades,” Francis said. “We must, above all, be able to transmit to them our passion for encounter and knowledge of the other, promoting the active and responsible involvement of young people.”

During the audience, Wiesenthal Center Dean Rabbi Marvin Hier called the pope “an ally in our struggles against anti-Semitism.”

“We want to reiterate to you that you have an ally in the Simon Wiesenthal Center in your struggle to secure the rights of religious minorities everywhere, especially endangered historic Christian communities in Egypt, Iraq and beyond,” Hier said.

Hier said the he hoped that Francis’s expected visit to Israel next year would “help all those committed to a lasting Middle East peace, to finally recognize the existence of a Jewish state alongside her twenty-three Arab neighbors.”

The pope has said he would like to visit the Holy Land next year but no date has yet been announced.

Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Marvin Hier meets with Pope Francis


In a private audience with Pope Francis on Oct. 24, Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC), urged the leader of the Catholic Church to confront the evil that exists in the world, even while praying and working for peace.

“Evil existed during the time of Moses as it did in Jesus’ time and as it does in our own time,” Hier told Pope Francis, according to a transcript of his remarks.

Hier, who brought with him 62 SWC trustees and supporters to the meeting in the papal residence in Vatican City on Thursday, called the meeting “an extraordinary event.”

“We need non-Jews as friends,” Hier told the Journal on Oct. 25. “It matters to us that a pope who is the spiritual leader of 1 billion Christians should hear our concerns.”

Speaking to the Journal from Rome, Hier said he had considered limiting his remarks on Thursday to the subject of “human relations,” but ultimately decided against it.

[Related: Francis pledges to further Jewish-Catholic dialogue]

“International issues are weighing on every Jewish home,” Hier said. “People are saying to themselves ‘What’s going to be with Iran?’ ‘Will there be peace with the Palestinians?’ And anti-Semitism is everywhere in Europe — so it was impossible just to make this just sort of a schmooze, talking about human relations and not to talk about the greater concerns of the Jewish community.”

Hier’s remarks were heavy with citations from traditional Jewish texts and did not make explicit mention of either Iran or the Palestinians. But coming at a time of increasing engagement by the United States and other Western powers in the Middle East, Hier’s message was still rather clear.

“[P]eace, like a doctor’s prescription, works only if one is willing to make lifestyle changes, diet, exercise, but there are millions of people who ignore their doctor’s advice,” he said.

So while the world must be open to the possibility of peace, it must also remember its failure to stand up to Hitler in the 1930s, and recognize that, in Hier’s words, “There are some nations who can’t compromise.”

Pope Francis, who addressed the group in Italian, condemned “any form of anti-Semitism,” and broadened that condemnation to include all manner of intolerance.

“When any minority is persecuted and marginalized on account of its religious beliefs or ethnic origin, the good of society as a whole is placed in danger, and we must all consider ourselves affected,” Pope Francis said, according to the Official Vatican Network. “I think with particular sadness of the suffering, marginalization and real persecution experienced by many Christians in various countries throughout the world. Let us unite our strengths to promote a culture of encounter, of mutual respect, understanding and forgiveness.”

The 62-person delegation — the largest Jewish group to meet Pope Francis to date, Hier said — included two Holocaust survivors, a handful of Christians, and one Muslim, Mohamed Alabbar, the chairman of Emaar Properties, the Emirati company that built the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

This was Hier’s fourth meeting with a sitting pope — he met twice with Pope John Paul II during his pontificate and once with Pope Benedict, in 2005. Hier said that Thursday’s meeting was initially scheduled as a meeting with Pope Benedict, who resigned the papacy in February of this year.

Pope Francis kept the arrangement, and Hier marveled at the differences in character between the current pontiff and his predecessors.

“He has the uncanny ability, when he is talking to a person, the rest of the world does not exist,” said Hier, describing what he saw as he introduced each member of his delegation to Pope Francis. “I did not find that in the other three audiences, even though Pope John Paul II was perhaps one of the greatest popes in the history of the church.”

Pope at Vatican meeting with Jewish delegation slams anti-Semitism


Pope Francis condemned anti-Semitism during a meeting with representatives of the international Jewish community at the Vatican.

“Because of our commons roots, a true Christian cannot be anti-Semitic,” Francis said on June 24 at a meeting with a delegation of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC).

He added that the Catholic Church “firmly condemns hatred, persecution and all manifestations of anti-Semitism.”

While Francis has met with several Jewish leaders since becoming pope, he said Monday’s meeting was the first time he has spoken with an official group of representatives of Jewish organizations and communities.

At the meeting, the pope reiterated that the 1965 declaration Nostra Aetate remained the key point of reference for Catholic relations with the Jewish people. The declaration stresses the religious bond shared by Jews and Catholics, reaffirms the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people, and calls for a halt to attempts to convert Jews.

Representatives of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis, and the World Jewish Congress also were in attendance.

IJCIC is the Vatican’s dialogue partner with world Jewry.

Piazza Palatucci


Last weekend, on a gorgeously sunny afternoon in a remote (and extraordinarily picturesque) village high in the mountains of central Italy, I attended a ceremony that, in signature Italian style, was operatic in its mix of hyperbole and sincere commitment.

The occasion was the dedication of a new piazza named in honor of Giovanni Palatucci, a World War II Italian fascist police official who is widely revered in Italy as “the Italian Schindler,” an almost legendary Raoul Wallenberg-type hero who reputedly saved thousands of Jews from deportation to Nazi death camps by, among other things, providing them false documents. He was arrested and sent to Dachau, where he died in 1945 just weeks before the end of World War II. 

Palatucci has been honored by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among Nations, and the Roman Catholic church has begun the process that could lead to his beatification. The ADL, the Italian Jewish community and the Italian Police also have honored his memory. The ADL even created a curriculum to teach about him.

The new piazza in Polino, a tiny medieval fortress of about 300 people, joined squares, streets, schools and other places named for Palatucci all over Italy. Etched in stone, now,  its name plaque honors Palatucci for “sacrificing his life to save thousands of Jews from deportation.” 

The problem is that recent scholarship has cast serious doubts on whether Palatucci actually did what he is revered for doing. Though documentation shows that he saved at least a few Jewish individuals, the figure of 5,000 that is usually cited for the number he rescued appears to be considerably inflated. And though it is commonly believed that the Nazis arrested him and sent  him to Dachau for saving Jews, this also does not appear to be the case — he was sent there, research indicates, for having been in touch with Allied forces.

“A growing chorus of historians and scholars,” Italian journalist Alessandra Farkas wrote recently in the Milan daily Corriere della Sera, say Palatucci “is nothing but a myth, a sensational fraud orchestrated by the alleged hero’s friends and relatives who claim he saved more than 5,000 Jews in a region where there lived fewer than half that number of Jews.”

The Primo Levi Center in New York organized a round-table discussion on the issue in April 2012. There, the former director of  the department of the righteous at Yad Vashem, Mordecai Paldiel, said  Palatucci had been recognized in 1990 as a Righteous Gentile for having helped save “just one woman” in 1940, and the commission had received no other information that he had saved others, though that might be possible. (The full round table can be viewed on line at: http://vimeo.com/40177189)

In Italy, the Giovanni Palatucci Association angrily rejected the criticism. And, in an article in the Vatican's official newspaper, Italian-Jewish historian Anna Foa wrote thar more documentation and study were needed before Palatucci's actions were discredited.

But the ADL announced it this week it would remove Palatucci’s name from its Courageous Leadership Award to Italian and American law enforcement officers. And the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington is removing material on Palatucci from its exhibitions and web site. The Vatican is also said to be reviewing its recognition.

General view of Polino from above (in early spring).

The controversy dates back half a dozen years and more, as scholars for the first time began serious research on the history of rescuers .

“There is very little clarity on historical sources,” historian Marco Coslovich, who published a book in 2008 questioning the extent of Palatucci’s actions, said in an interview with the deputy director of the Primo Levi Center in 2010. “The Police archives have no records detailing what Palatucci has allegedly done to save thousands of Jews.”

Regardless of the facts — whatever they may be — Palatucci remains a beloved popular hero here, a potent  symbol of what Italians like to believe they are, or what they could – or should — be. 

This was strikingly evident Saturday in Polino at the dedication ceremony. Speeches held him up as an example of righteous — even saintly — Christian behavior.  And — like the plaque denoting the newly named piazza — honored him for “sacrificing his life to save thousands of Jews from deportation.” 

The mayor, in his red-white-and-green sash; regional police representatives; two priests, including a police chaplain, and other VIPS all took part. One of the words I heard them use most was “altruism” – a clear attempt to urge citizens to care for others, in a society where “family first” is often still a guiding principle.

In the end, I took part in the ceremony, too. 

No Jews live (or probably ever lived) in Polino; there are only about 30,000 or so Jews among Italy’s 60 million people. A representative of Italian Jewry had been invited, but could not come because it was Shabbat.

I was at the ceremony not because I’m a Jew, but because I'm a friend of the local artist who created the sculptural monument erected in the new piazza: a bust of Palatucci framed by a gate bearing the “arbeit macht frei” Nazi slogan.

Still, as the speeches went on, and the police band played, and the priests blessed the monument, it became clear to me that a Jewish voice was sorely lacking. I felt compelled to say something, amid all the high ideals and abstract discourse about “Jews,” their salvation and what that meant for Christian values.

So I asked to speak – and was welcomed by the officials when I did so.

The Mayor of Polino (in sash) unveils the monument and piazza Giovanni Palatucci plaque. The plaque reads that Palatucci “sacrificed his life to save thousands of Jews from deportation.”

I didn’t know if anyone else there was mindful of the shadows being cast now over Palatucci's record, and under the circumstances I felt I could not even refer to this.

Perhaps it’s the thought that counts anyway – and despite the hagiography, the thought behind the ceremony was not just to honor someone who is widely believed to have risked his life to save Jews, but to encourage today's Italians themselves to step in and help people in need. 

In my brief remarks I ended up, in fact, not talking about Palatucci at all, but about the importance – the duty — to honor those who did what others did not do during the Shoah, and by extension those who do what others do not do in the face of today’s injustices. We have a teaching, I told them, that whoever saves one life is considered to save the world.

And then I also presented the message I always feel that I must expound when speaking as a Jew at Holocaust commemorations or similar events in small Italian towns where few if anyone in the audience has ever actually seen a living Jewish person.

That is, that we are people like them, human beings — and not abstract stereotypes, or statistics, or eccentric oddities or victims in death camp striped pajamas.

And PS: more than 500 Italians have been named Righteous Gentiles, though few know any name other than Palatucci. I found it somewhat ironic that one of these heroes, Odoardo Focherini,  who actually was deported and killed for saving Jews, was beatified by the Catholic church the day after the Polino Piazza Palatucci ceremony.

Jews tell pope of concern over moves to make Pius XII a saint


A Jewish leader expressed concern to Pope Francis on Monday over attempts to make a saint of World War II-era Pope Pius XII, who has been accused of turning a blind eye to the Holocaust.

Francis made no mention of his wartime predecessor during his talks with members of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC), but the pontiff repeated the Roman Catholic Church's condemnation of anti-Semitism.

“The Jewish community continues to be concerned about efforts to canonize Pope Pius XII while innumerable documents pertaining to the history of the Church and the Jewish people during the dark years of the Holocaust still remain closed to outside scholarly investigation,” IJCIC chairman Lawrence Schiffman told the pope.

The issue of whether the Vatican and the Church under Pius did all they could to help Jews has dogged Catholic-Jewish relations for decades. Pius became pontiff in 1939, the year World War Two broke out, and reigned until 1958.

Critics accuse Pius of failing to take action to stop the Holocaust but his supporters say he worked actively behind the scenes to encourage the Church to save Jews. They say speaking out more forcefully would have worsened the situation for all.

Jews have asked that the process, still in its early stages, that could eventually make Pius a saint be frozen until after all the Vatican's wartime archives have been opened and studied by scholars. The bulk is expected to be released next year.

At Monday's meeting, the first between the pope and an international Jewish organization since his election in March, Francis did not mention Pius but when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires he expressed support for opening Vatican archives.

“COMMON ROOTS”

“Due to our common roots, a Christian cannot be anti-Semitic,” he told the delegation from IJCIC, an umbrella group that represents most major Jewish organizations and all streams of Jewish thought.

Francis, who had good relations with Jews in Argentina and wrote a book with Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka, told the delegation the Church was committed to the Second Vatican Council document Nostra Aetate (In Our Times).

The 1965 declaration, which Francis called “a key point of reference for relations with the Jewish people”, revolutionized those relations by repudiating the concept of collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus and urging dialogue with Jews.

A participant at the meeting called the atmosphere “extremely friendly” and less formal than in meetings with Francis' predecessor Benedict.

Francis reached out to the Jewish community a day after his election on March 13 as the first non-European pope in 1,300 years by sending a message to Rome's chief rabbi and inviting him to his inaugural Mass at the Vatican.

In April, Francis accepted an invitation from Israeli President Shimon Peres to visit the Jewish state.

Both of Francis's two immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, visited the Holy Land, including the Palestinian territories, in 2000 and 2009 respectively.

Editing by Gareth Jones

Pope at installation gives shout-out to Jews


Pope Francis gave a shout-out to Jews during the open-air Mass that formally installed him as pontiff.

Francis began his homily Tuesday by greeting the Catholic dignitaries and faithful in the huge crowd that crammed St. Peter’s Square and the surrounding area. He thanked “representatives of the other Churches and ecclesial Communities, as well as the representatives of the Jewish community and the other religious communities, for their presence.”

Among the crowd were Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni; Riccardo Pacifici, the president of the Rome Jewish community; and more than a dozen other Jewish representatives.

It is said to be the first time that Rome’s chief rabbi has attended a papal inauguration.

Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, had invited Di Segni to his inauguration on April 24, 2005, but Di Segni did not attend because it was the first day of Passover.

Benedict also singled out Jews in his welcoming remarks, greeting “with great affection …  you, my brothers and sisters of the Jewish people, to whom we are joined by a great shared spiritual heritage, one rooted in God's irrevocable promises.”

New pope is an old friend of the Jewish community


Before immigrating to the United States from Argentina, I was invited several times on national public holidays to the Metropolitan Cathedral in Buenos Aires for Catholic Mass celebrated by Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis. As a gesture of inclusiveness, the group of approximately 25 clergy from various faiths was invited to sit close to the altar.

In listening to the cardinal's sermons, I appreciated the many times when he spoke out against injustice, corruption, social inequality, human trafficking and his commitment to building a better society. As a rabbi who is very involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue, I followed his words with great interest.

Argentinians hold varying opinions about the new pope regarding some controversial issues, but many would agree that during his tenure as head of the Argentina Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio always promoted interfaith dialogue. He enjoys a good relationship with the Jewish community in Argentina and has been the guest of several synagogues, as well as other Jewish organizations.

The election of a new pope is an important event for the Roman Catholic Church. As the largest Christian denomination in the world with an estimated 1.2 billion members, it is relevant for others, too — particularly for the Jewish people.

After the murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazis, the Catholic and Protestant churches realized that something was wrong with their teachings about Jews and Judaism because the Holocaust did not happen in Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu countries; it happened in Christian countries. Consequently, the churches began to re-evaluate their historically negative position toward Jews and Judaism.

In 1965, during the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI promulgated the historic Declaration On The Relations of the Church To Non-Christian Religions Nostra Aetate. The document laid the foundation on which important declarations, documents and actions were built.

But with the election of a new pope, the question arises in many minds: Will Pope Francis follow in the steps of his predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI? I am hopeful he will.

In 2010, Cardinal Bergoglio visited the AMIA, an organization in Buenos Aires dedicated to fostering the well-being and development of Jewish life, helping the poor and unemployed, and supporting Jewish education. The AMIA experienced a devastating terrorist attack in 1994 in which 85 people were killed and hundreds were injured.

During his visit, the cardinal said a prayer in the courtyard in front of a memorial with the names of the 85 fatalities, then placed a wreath at the foot of the memorial. Invited to sign the book of illustrious guests, he wrote — paraphrasing God's words to Abraham after the test of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:17) — “As the sands on the seashore will be your descendants, I thank the Lord that on this day I am allowed to share part of the way with our older brothers.”

Bergoglio also said that AMIA is “an example to imitate of work for the common good, a house of solidarity, and a place that evokes in us a history of blood and pain, another link of pain that God's chosen people has been to throughout history.”

The cardinal is well known as a humble man who uses public transportation in the city and cooks his own meals. He displayed his modest nature at the end of the visit to the AMIA, when the center's secretary offered to accompany him to his car. When Cardinal Bergoglio replied that he did not have a car, he was told that a cab would be called for him. The cardinal's response was,”No thanks, I will take the subway.”

For several years, B'nai B'rith and the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires organized a Jewish-Christian commemoration of Kristallnach, “the Night of Broken Glass” — the Nazis' state-sanctioned riots against the Jewish community of Germany in November 1938. The commemorations took place at various Catholic churches, including twice at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Buenos Aires, the last time in November 2012.

The commemoration began with the reading of “From Death to Hope: Liturgical Reflections on the Holocaust,” co-edited by the late Rabbi Leon Klenicki, a native Argentinian who was director of interfaith affairs of the Anti-Defamation League, and Eugene Fisher, associate director and secretary for ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In his speech at the commemoration, the cardinal noted that during World War II, many pretended not to notice what was happening to the Jews. Not only did individuals ignore people in the extermination camps, he said, but entire countries ignored them even though they had the means to help.

As an example, he cited countries that were capable of accessing the extermination camps but did not dare to bomb them. He added, “I apologize for this sin of ignoring our own flesh, which is that of our brothers.”

Pope Francis is particularly close to Rabbi Abraham Skorka, rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary (the rabbinical seminary of the Conservative movement) and senior rabbi of the Benei Tikva synagogue in Buenos Aires. Together they published a book, “On Heaven and Earth,” which chronicles hundreds of hours of their conversations about God, fundamentalism, death, women, abortion, education, globalization, the Holocaust and the Arab-Israeli conflict, among other topics.

The book, as well as others written by Bergoglio, will likely become best-sellers now. And as a bonus, those who read “On Heaven and Earth” will be introduced to Jewish perspectives and thus will have the opportunity to learn about Judaism.

In the book's introduction, Bergoglio offered his point of view regarding interfaith relationships.

“Dialogue is born of an attitude of respect for another person, and a conviction that the other has something good to say; it assumes to make room in our hearts for his point of view, for his opinions and his suggestions,” he wrote. “Dialogue involves a warm welcome, not condemnation. To dialogue, one must lower defenses, open doors and provide human warmth.”

Bergoglio described his friendship with the rabbi and their joint preparation of the book, saying, “With Skorka I didn't ever have to compromise my Catholic identity, just as he did not with his Jewish identity. This was not only because of the respect we have for each other, but also because this is what we consider interreligious dialogue.”

He added, “I consider Skorka a brother and a friend.”

The two clergy also host a television program for a local Catholic channel in which they discuss topics from the perspectives of each religion. Recently, Argentina Catholic University in Buenos Aires awarded Rabbi Skorka an honorary doctorate, and the cardinal presented it to him.

Those of us who know Pope Francis are confident that in his new position, he will continue in the steps of his two predecessors, and the dialogue and friendship between Catholics and Jews will continue.

Mordechai Levin is the senior rabbi at Beth El Synagogue in Omaha, Neb.

Jews find early signs from Pope Francis encouraging


When the white smoke rose last week at the Vatican, signaling to the world that the College of Cardinals had chosen a new pope, Catholics weren’t the only ones waiting with bated breath.

Jews, too, were eager to see whether the new pontiff would be someone familiar with their concerns.

Would he be a non-European unfamiliar with the Jewish people and the weighty legacy of the Holocaust? Would he carry on the legacy of his immediate predecessors and work to further Jewish-Catholic relations? 

After the new pope appeared before the masses in St. Peter’s Square, it didn’t take long for him to signal that he would maintain the church’s outreach to Jews. Nor did it take long for the Jews to sing his praises.

As it turns out, Pope Francis, 76 – nee Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina – was from outside Europe and had a long history of interfaith outreach and good relations with the Jews. He’s the first pope from the Americas, as well as the first in more than a millennium from outside Europe.

The new pontiff “is no stranger to us,” World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, who met with Bergoglio in Buenos Aires in 2008, said in a statement. “He always had an open ear for our concerns.

“By choosing such an experienced man, someone who is known for his open-mindedness, the cardinals have sent an important signal to the world,” Lauder said. “I am sure that Pope Francis will continue to be a man of dialogue, a man who is able to build bridges with other faiths.”

Like Benedict before him, Francis in one of his first official acts wrote to Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni. He invited Di Segni to the papal inaugural Mass and said he hoped “to be able to contribute to the progress that relations between Jews and Catholics have experienced” since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

The election of Francis, Di Segni wrote back, “gives us the hope that the path of friendship, respect and productive collaboration will continue.”

On Saturday, the pope went out of his way to acknowledge non-Catholics in a blessing offered to news media.

“Given that many of you do not belong to the Catholic Church and others are not believers, I give this blessing from my heart, in silence, to each one of you, respecting the conscience of each one of you, but knowing that each one of you is a child of God,” Francis said in his address, according to The New York Times. “May God bless you.”

Pope John Paul II had made outreach to Jews one of the pillars of his papacy. His successor, Benedict XVI, continued dialogue with the Jews but also made several policy decisions that angered Jews, including lifting the excommunication of a renegade bishop who turned out to be a Holocaust denier.

Francis projects a “man of the people” style in sharp contrast to Benedict, who was seen as removed and cold. Francis is known for living simply, taking the subway and answering his own phone. He spent virtually his entire career in Argentina, away from the intrigues of the Vatican’s Roman Curia — the central governing body of the Catholic Church — and other scandals that dogged the papacy of his predecessor.

However, within days of the new pope's election, the Vatican faced questions about what Francis did — and did not do — to oppose the military junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. Critics have said the church did not do enough to oppose the military dictatorship's Dirty War, including the kidnapping of two Jesuit priests in 1976. Francis has said he worked behind the scenes to free the priests and sheltered others by hiding them at a Jesuit school.

The questions about Francis' past carry echoes of the Holocaust-era controversy surrounding Pope Pius XII. Many Jews charge that Pius did not do enough to oppose the Nazis, but the Vatican and Pius' proponents say he worked behind the scenes to save Jews.

While a staunch conservative on social issues such as gay marriage, female priests and abortion, Francis spent years working among the poor and made interfaith outreach one of his priorities.

“The Latin American Jewish Congress has had a close relationship with Monsignor Jorge Bergoglio for many years,” said Claudio Epelman, executive director of the congress. “We know his virtues and have no doubt whatsoever that he will do an excellent job for the church.”

As archbishop of Buenos Aires, his relationship with Argentinian Jews was personal as well as institutional.

His only book, “Regarding Heaven and Earth,” is the transcript of wide-ranging conversations between himself and Rabbi Abraham Skorka, the rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary. Francis and the rabbi also shared billing on an Argentinian TV talk show on religious issues.

Francis has referred to Skorka as his “brother and friend.” The then-cardinal attended services at Skorka’s synagogue and also arranged for Skorka to receive an honorary doctorate from the Catholic University of Argentina.

Francis also wrote the foreword to a book by another Buenos Aires rabbi and civic activist, Sergio Bergman.

“Bergoglio is a master,” Bergman wrote in the Argentinian media after Francis’ election. “True to my Jewish roots and rabbinical vocation, inside my home community and the entire Argentine society, I found in Francis a teacher who heard me, guided me and advised me on how to deploy my vocation to serve both the Creator and his creatures in defiance of common good.”

Last December, Bergoglio joined Bergman and other Jewish leaders and representatives of other faiths in lighting the Hanukkah candles.

Francis is cited with particular warmth by Argentinian Jews for showing solidarity with the Jewish community following the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that left 85 dead. The attack, Francis told the Argentinian media, was “another link in the chain of pain and persecution that God’s chosen people has suffered throughout history.”

In 2005, he signed a petition for justice in the AMIA bombing case and a document called “85 victims, 85 signatures.” In June 2010, he visited the rebuilt AMIA building to talk with Jewish leaders.

“The closeness between Francis and the Jewish community is special and precious,” Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, vice president of the World Union of Progressive Judaism, told JTA.

Bretton-Granatoor, who is based in New York but has met Francis a couple of times, called the new pope “a mensch” who “gets the importance of a relationship with the Jewish community, who understands the meaning of the Shoah and has a heart in the right place on a number of issues that concern us as well.”

Obviously, he added, “we will vigorously disagree with him on many fundamental issues as well — but that is part of the game, isn't it?”

New pope, Jorge Mario Bergogli of Argentina, has Jewish connections


Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Argentinian cardinal who was elected pope late Wednesday and will take the name Francis I, is said to have a good relationship with Argentinian Jews.

Bergoglio, 76, a Jesuit, was the choice of the College of Cardinals following two days of voting in Vatican City. He is the first pope to come from outside Europe in more than a millennium; reflecting the changing demographics of Catholics, he comes from Latin America.

As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio attended Rosh Hashanah services at the Benei Tikva Slijot synagogue in September 2007.

Rabbi David Rosen, the director of interfaith affairs for the American Jewish Committee, told JTA that the new pope is a “warm and sweet and modest man” known in Buenos Aires for doing his own cooking and personally answering his phone.

After the bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in 1994, he “showed solidarity with the Jewish community,” Rosen said.

In 2005, Bergoglio was the first public personality to sign a petition for justice in the AMIA bombing case. He also was one of the signatories on a document called “85 victims, 85 signatures” as part of the bombing's 11th anniversary. In June 2010, he visited the rebuilt AMIA building to talk with Jewish leaders.

“Those who said Benedict was the last pope who would be a pope that lived through the Shoah, or that said there would not be another pope who had a personal connection to the Jewish people, they were wrong,” Rosen said.

Soon after the chimney of the Sistine Chapel sent up a puff of white smoke signifying that the cardinals had selected a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, Francis addressed thousands of faithful from the balcony of St. Peter’s Baslica.

“Buonasera,” he told them, saying “Good evening” in Italian, and thanked his fellow cardinals for going “almost to the ends of the earth” to find him.

Benedict was the first pontiff to step down since 1415.

Israel Singer, the former head of the World Jewish Congress, said he spent time working with Bergoglio when the two were distributing aid to the poor in Buenos Aires in the early 2000s, part of a joint Jewish-Catholic program called Tzedaka.

“We went out to the barrios where Jews and Catholics were suffering togeher,” Singer told JTA. “If everyone sat in chairs with handles, he would sit in the one without. He was always looking to be more modest. He's going to find it hard to wear all these uniforms.”

Bergoglio also wrote the foreward of a book by Rabbi Sergio Bergman and referred to him as “one of my teachers.”

Last November, Bergoglio hosted a Kristallnacht memorial event at the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral with Rabbi Alejandro Avruj from the NCI-Emanuel World Masorti congregation.

He also has worked with the Latin American Jewish Congress and held meetings with Jewish youth who participate in its New Generations program.

“The Latin American Jewish Congress has had a close relationship with Jorge Bergoglio for several years,” Claudio Epelman, executive director of the Latin American Jewish Congress, told JTA. “We know his values and strengths. We have no doubt he will do a great job leading the Catholic Church.”

In his visit to the Buenos Aires synagogue, according to the Catholic Zenit news agency, Bergoglio told the congregation that he was there to examine his heart “like a pilgrim, together with you, my elder brothers.”

“Today, here in this synagogue, we are made newly aware of the fact that we are a people on a journey and we place ourselves in God’s presence,” Zenit quoted the then-archbishop as saying. “We must look at him and let him look at us, to examine our heart in his presence and to ask ourselves if we are walking blamelessly.”

Renzo Gattegna, the president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, offered Italian Jewry's congratualations to the new pope with the “most fervent wishes” that his pontificate could bring “peace and brotherhood to all humanity.”

In particular, Gattegna voiced the hope that there would be a continuation “with reciprocal satisfaction” of “the intense course of dialogue that the Jews have always hoped for and that has been also realized through the work of the popes who have led the church in the recent past.”

Jewish leaders, groups welcome Pope Francis


Jewish leaders around the world welcomed Wednesday’s selection of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Bergoglio, 76, who took the name Francis upon his selection, has been the archbishop of Buenos Aires since 1998 and is the first from the Americas to lead the Catholic Church.

“In the Jewish community in Buenos Aires, the widely shared impression is that he’s very friendly, that the cardinal was determined to have a cordial relationship with the Jewish community,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said.

Bergoglio has twice attended services at synagogues in Buenos Aires, Hier said, and he led a commemoration of the anniversary of Kristallnacht in his cathedral this past December.

Hier and other Jewish leaders were particularly encouraged by Bergoglio’s reaction to the 1994 terrorist attack on the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, which killed more than 80 people.

“We are heartened by his profound statement of solidarity with the Jewish people and his identity with the pain that was caused by the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires,” Jewish Council for Public Affairs Chair Larry Gold said in a statement released on Wednesday.

Rabbi Sergio Bergman, who is the senior rabbi of one of the largest synagogues in Buenos Aires and has been a member of Buenos Aires’ city legislature since 2011, heralded Bergoglio’s selection on Twitter.

“Argentines and men and women of good will, as brothers, we celebrate the unity in diversity convened together for Francisco I,” Bergman tweeted in Spanish after hearing news of the selection.

World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder, who met Bergoglio in 2008, expressed optimism that Francis would continue the work of building relationships between the Catholic Church and world Jewry.

“He always had an open ear for our concerns,” Lauder said in a statement. “I am sure that Francis I will continue to be a man of dialogue, a man who is able to build bridges with other faiths.”

Bergoglio’s reputation in Argentina is not that of a reformer. He is known to be socially conservative, upholding the church’s traditionally held positions on gay rights and abortion. He has not said much publicly about Israel in the past, but Hier said he is hopeful that Francis will emerge as a supporter of the Jewish state.

“We very much see him as a pope in the tradition of John Paul II and John XXIII,” Hier said. John Paul II established formal relations between the Vatican and Israel; John XXIII is believed to have influenced the drafting of “Nostra Aetate,” the 1965 declaration that stated Jews could not be held responsible for the death of Jesus.

Argentinian Pope Bergoglio a moderate focused on the poor


The first Latin American pope, Argentina's Jorge Bergoglio is a moderate known for his strong negotiating skills as well as a readiness to challenge powerful interests.

He is a modest man from a middle class family who is content to travel by bus.

Described by his biographer as a balancing force, Bergoglio, 76, has monk-like habits, is media shy and deeply concerned about the social inequalities rife in his homeland and elsewhere in Latin America.

“His character is in every way that of a moderate. He is absolutely capable of undertaking the necessary renovation without any leaps into the unknown. He would be a balancing force,” said Francesca Ambrogetti, who co-authored a biography of Bergoglio after carrying out a series of interviews with him over three years.

“He shares the view that the Church should have a missionary role, that gets out to meet people, that is active…. a church that does not so much regulate the faith as promote and facilitate it,” she added.

“His lifestyle is sober and austere. That's the way he lives. He travels on the underground, the bus, when he goes to Rome he flies economy class.”

The former cardinal, the first Jesuit to become pope, was born into a middle-class family of seven, his father a railway worker and his mother a housewife.

He is a solemn man, deeply attached to centuries-old Roman Catholic traditions. Since rejecting a comfortable archbishop's residence, he has lived in a small apartment outside Buenos Aires where he spends his weekends in solitude.

In his rare public appearances, Bergoglio spares no harsh words for politicians and Argentine society, and has had a tricky relationship with President Cristina Fernandez and her late husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner.

TURBULENT TIMES

Bergoglio became a priest at 32, nearly a decade after losing a lung due to respiratory illness and quitting his chemistry studies. Despite his late start, he was leading the local Jesuit community within four years, holding the post from 1973 to 1979.

Bergoglio's vocational success coincided with the bloody 1976-1983 military dictatorship, during which up to 30,000 suspected leftists were kidnapped and killed — which prompted sharp questions about his role.

The most well-known episode relates to the abduction of two Jesuits whom the military government secretly jailed for their work in poor neighbourhoods.

According to “The Silence,” a book written by journalist Horacio Verbitsky, Bergoglio withdrew his order's protection of the two men after they refused to quit visiting the slums, which ultimately paved the way for their capture.

Verbitsky's book is based on statements by Orlando Yorio, one of the kidnapped Jesuits, before he died of natural causes in 2000. Both of the abducted clergymen survived five months of imprisonment.

“History condemns him. It shows him to be opposed to all innovation in the Church and above all, during the dictatorship, it shows he was very cosy with the military,” Fortunato Mallimacci, the former dean of social sciences at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, once said.

Those who defend Bergoglio say there is no proof behind these claims and, on the contrary, they say the priest helped many dissidents escape during the military junta's rule.

But in the Vatican, far removed from the dictatorship's grim legacy, this quiet priest is expected to lead the Church with an iron grip and a strong social conscience.

In 2010, he challenged the Argentine government when it backed a gay marriage bill.

“Let's not be naive. This isn't a simple political fight, it's an attempt to destroy God's plan,” he wrote in a letter days before the bill was approved by Congress.

Additional reporting by Damina Wrocklavsy; Editing by Helen Popper and Giles Elgood

Pope Benedict quits Vatican with promise to obey successor


Pope Benedict left the Vatican on Thursday after pledging unconditional obedience to whoever succeeds him to guide the Roman Catholic Church at one of the most crisis-ridden periods in its 2,000-year history.

The first pope in six centuries to step down, Benedict flew off in a white Italian air force helicopter for the papal summer villa south of the capital where he took up temporary residence.

As the helicopter took off, he sent his last message on Twitter:

Bells rang out from St Peter's Basilica and churches all over Rome as the helicopter circled Vatican City and flew over the Colosseum and other landmarks to give the pontiff one last view of the city where he is also bishop.

“As you know, today is different to previous ones,” he told an emotional, cheering crowd holding balloons and banners after he arrived in the small town of Castel Gandolfo.

“I will only be the supreme pontiff of the Catholic Church until 8 p.m and then no longer. I will simply be a pilgrim who is starting the last phase of his pilgrimage on this earth.”

He then turned and went inside the villa, never to be seen again as pope.

“I wanted to see him for the last time. I hope his successor follows in his footsteps. I feel very moved to be here,” said Giuseppe Ercolino, a 19-year-old student from a nearby town.

In an emotional farewell to cardinals on Thursday morning in the Vatican's frescoed Sala Clementina, Benedict appeared to send a strong message to the top echelons of the Church as well as the faithful to remain united behind his successor, whoever he is.

“I will continue to be close to you in prayer, especially in the next few days, so that you are fully accepting of the action of the Holy Spirit in the election of the new pope,” he said. “May the Lord show you what he wants. Among you there is the future pope, to whom I today declare my unconditional reverence and obedience.”

The pledge, made ahead of the closed-doors conclave where cardinals will elect his successor, was significant because for the first time in history, there will be a reigning pope and a former pope living side by side in the Vatican.

Some Church scholars worry that if the next pope undoes some of Benedict's policies while his predecessor is still alive, Benedict could act as a lightning rod for conservatives and polarize the 1.2 billion-member Church.

Before boarding the helicopter, Pope Benedict said goodbye to monsignors, nuns, Vatican staff and Swiss guards in the San Damaso courtyard of the Holy See's apostolic palace. Many of his staff had tears in their eyes as the helicopter left.

Benedict will spend the first few months of his retirement in the papal summer residence, a complex of villas boasting lush gardens, a farm and stunning views over Lake Albano in the volcanic crater below the town.

Benedict will stay until April when renovations are completed on a convent in the Vatican that will be his new home.

PAPAL PROBLEMS

With the election of the next pope taking place in the wake of sexual abuse scandals, leaks of his private papers by his butler, falling membership and demands for a greater role for women, many in the Church believe it would benefit from a fresh face from a non-European country.

A number of cardinals from the developing world, including Ghanaian Peter Turkson and Antonio Tagle of the Philippines are two names often mentioned as leading candidates from the developing world who listen more.

“At the past two conclaves, the cardinals elected the smartest man in the room. Now, it may be time to choose a man who will listen to all the other smart people in the Church,” said Father Tom Resse, a historian and senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.

Benedict, wearing the white papal cassock and red cape he will shed after his resignation becomes official, urged the Church to strive to be “deeply united”.

A lover of classical music, he compared the Church hierarchy to an orchestra with many instruments which should always seek to be harmonious.

“In these past eight years we have lived with faith beautiful moments of radiant light in the path of the Church as well as moments when some clouds darkened the sky,” he said, adding that he had “tried to serve Christ and his Church with deep and total love”.

NEW POPE BEFORE EASTER

Once the chair of St Peter is vacant, cardinals who have assembled from around the world will begin planning the conclave that will elect his successor.

One of the first questions facing these “princes of the Church” is when the 115 cardinal electors should enter the Sistine Chapel for the voting. They will hold a first meeting on Friday but a decision may not come until next week.

The Vatican seems to be aiming for an election by mid-March so the new pope can be installed in office before Palm Sunday on March 24 and lead the Holy Week services that culminate in Easter on the following Sunday.

In the meantime, the cardinals will hold daily consultations at the Vatican at which they discuss issues facing the Church, get to know each other better and size up potential candidates for the 2,000-year-old post of pope.

There are no official candidates, no open campaigning and no clear front runner for the job. Cardinals tipped as favorites by Vatican-watchers include Turkson, Tagle, Brazil's Odilo Scherer, Canadian Marc Ouellet, Italy's Angelo Scola and Timothy Dolan of the United States.

Benedict, a bookish man who did not seek the papacy and did not enjoy being in the global spotlight, proved an energetic teacher of Catholic doctrine but a poor manager of the Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy that became mired in scandal.

He leaves his successor a top secret report on rivalries and scandals within the Curia, prompted by leaks of internal files last year that documented the problems hidden behind the Vatican's thick walls and the Church's traditional secrecy.

Netanyahu thanks Pope for deepening Christian-Jewish ties


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked outgoing Pope Benedict on Monday for his efforts to shore up often troubled relations between the Roman Catholic Church and Jews, including with his 2009 visit to the Holy Land.

That trip, in which the German-born Benedict paid respects at Israel's main Holocaust memorial, was seen by many Jews as atoning for his lifting of the excommunication of a bishop who questioned the scale of the Nazi genocide. On other occasions he visited the Auschwitz death camp and the Cologne synagogue.

The pontiff, who will abdicate on February 28, also changed a Latin prayer for Good Friday services by traditionalist Catholics in 2008, deleting a reference to Jews and their “blindness” but still calling for them to accept Jesus.

“In the name of the people of Israel, I would like to thank you for everything you did in your capacity as pope in the name of strengthening ties between Christians and Jews and between the Holy See and the Jewish State,” Netanyahu said in a letter to Benedict, a copy of which was circulated to the media.

“I thank you also for bravely defending the values of Judaism and Christianity during your papal term,” the conservative premier wrote.

“I have no doubt that these values, which were so crucial to building the modern world, are no less critical for ensuring a future of security, prosperity and peace.”

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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