VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict announced on Sunday he will visit Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories in May in a trip that will include a stop at Jerusalem’s memorial to Holocaust victims.
The pope’s stop in Israel will be particularly significant because of the continuing controversy over his decision to lift the excommunication of a bishop who denies the Holocaust.
In his first trip as pope to the Holy Land, he will visit the Jordanian capital Amman before heading for Jerusalem and Nazareth in Israel, and Palestinian-ruled Bethlehem.
“I will make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to ask the Lord, by visiting the places sanctified by his earthly passage, for the precious gift of unity and peace for the Middle East and for all humanity,” Benedict told pilgrims and tourists in St Peter’s Square.
The May 8-15 trip will be the first by a pope to the Holy Land since Pope John Paul visited in 2000 and, at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, asked God forgiveness for offences by Christians against Jews over the centuries.
It follows the worst crisis in Catholic-Jewish relations in half a century after Benedict lifted the excommunication of British Bishop Richard Williamson, who said in January no more than 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps, rather than the six million figure widely accepted by historians.
Williamson also said he did not believe there had been any gas chambers at the concentration camps.
He was one of four ultra-traditionalist bishops whose excommunications were lifted by Benedict in an attempt to heal a schism in the Church that began when they were ordained in 2008 without papal permission.
On February 12 the pope, in an attempt to defuse the crisis, told Jewish leaders that “any denial or minimization of this terrible crime is intolerable,” especially from a clergyman.
POPE‘S WARTIME ROLE
While in Jerusalem, the pope will visit the Yad Vashem memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, which John Paul visited in 2000.
“His presence there as well as his words will send a clear signal to the Catholic world that any form of Holocaust denial is unacceptable,” Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican, Mordechay Lewy, told Reuters.
Another delicate issue the pope will face in Israel is that of Pius XII, the pope who reigned from 1939 to 1958 and who some Jews have accused of turning a blind eye to the Holocaust during World War Two, a charge his supporters and the Vatican deny.
But a visit to Yad Vashem’s nearby museum is not planned. The museum contains a picture of Pius XII with a caption that some of the wartime pontiff’s supporters have asked to be removed or altered.
The caption says that Pius “abstained from signing the Allied declaration condemning the extermination of the Jews” and “maintained his neutral position throughout the war.”
The Vatican has called the caption “objectionable.”
Catholic and Jewish scholars are now meeting in Jerusalem to discuss Pius’ role but sources said they doubt any agreement on changing the wording of the caption could be reached before the pope’s visit.
A separate meeting of Vatican and Jewish leaders involved in inter-faith dialogue which the Jewish side postponed because of the Williamson crisis will now take place in Rome on Thursday and the participants will have an audience with the pope.
Editing by Dominic Evans