BACKGROUND FOR POPE'S VISIT TO HOLY LAND
JERUSALEM (FIDES/CWNews.com) -- In preparation for the visit by
Pope John Paul II to the Holy Land, the Fides news agency
interviewed Father David Jaeger, OFM-- one of the people most
knowledgeable about the Church in the Holy Land and the relations
between Christians and Jews.
Father Jaeger, a Jewish convert, is a member of the Holy See
Delegation to the bilateral Commission with Israel. He was among
those who worked on the Holy See/Israel agreement, and among the
first to comment on the basic agreement with the Palestinian
Authority. The Franciscan priest now teaches at the Pontifical
Antonianum College in Rome.
The following is the text of the Fides interview:
FIDES: Father Jaeger what is the attitude towards the Holy
Father's imminent visit?
JAEGER: The Jews in Jerusalem are showing great interest and I
would say that the atmosphere is decidedly positive. Although the
Pope has underlined that the visit is part of his spiritual
pilgrimage," people here regard it as a visit to their
country and are preparing to give him a warm welcome. They are
curious to know more about the Catholic Church and its faith. I
have noticed that for many journalists and ordinary people here,
the Catholic faith is almost a foreign world, unknown and rather
The government, for its part has made the visit a national
priority. Prime Minister Ehud Barak decided to take personal
responsibility for organization, asking his nearest minister, Hon.
Haim Ramon to devote himself completely to the project. Even
though it is not a state visit in the strict sense, Israel has
spared neither efforts nor resources.
Of course on the margins of social life there are groups with
different views. Orthodox Jewish leaders are diffident about
opening to other believers, Catholics in particular. They are
convinced they must protect their religion and their believers
from Christianity's obvious attraction. They are troubled by an
imaginary threat of proselytism.
FIDES: Are these the same groups who worry about spreading
atheism in Israel?
JAEGER: Atheism is not a problem for the Jewish religion. For
Orthodox Jews what counts is to keep the precepts of the Law. The
majority of Jews in Israel are secular not religious, not
practicing, but certainly not atheist. Zionism, the national
Jewish movement, is completely secular, not religious. Its goal
has always been to free the Jewish people from the yoke of other
nations by creating the state of Israel; but also to liberate the
people from the yoke of religious precepts, theocracy.
In the last few years a theocratic minority has gained
influence and begun to fight the secular state. There is a sort of
battle of culture between secular Jews and religious Jews trying
to spread their influence to more areas. We Christians hope for a
victory of the seculars: a state is a state of freedom to the
extent that it is secular. The agreement reached between the Holy
See and Israel has as its first article, religious freedom, as
also the UN Charter and Israel's own declaration of
The Pope's pilgrimage is spiritual but are there any political
aspects? The Church does not engage in politics. But, it is true
that the Church of the Word Incarnate walks in history and
therefore inevitably also in geopolitics. It is enough to look at
the marked difference between this visit and Pope Paul VI's visit
to the Holy Land in 1964. Paul VI visited Israel (as well as
Jordan). But in those days there were no diplomatic relations
between the Vatican and Israel. Israeli President Salman Shazar
had to go to Megiddo to meet the Pope at least in an unofficial
way. Israel felt somewhat humiliated by the low-key tone of the
visit; the Pope appeared unwilling to recognize its existence.
Since 1994 there are diplomatic relations, two agreements signed,
others in preparation to regulate various aspects of these
FIDES: But has all this improved relations between the Catholic
Church and the Jews? Recently many Jews have complained that the
Pope has not said enough about Christian sins against the Jewish
JAEGER: The fact that the Pope will also visit the Yad Vashem
holocaust museum would appear to me a significant gesture. But it
should be said that in Israel almost nothing is known about the
progress made in Catholic/Jewish relations since Vatican II. In
the next talks between Israel and the Holy See we will discuss
precisely how to make these achievements known to the Jewish
people. This will call for instruction.
At Tel Aviv University a few months ago I mentioned the changes
in relations with the Jews brought about by Vatican II. One of the
teachers, a woman, remarked: "How wonderful! What a surprise!
What good news; it is as if the Messiah has come!" The
Council documents were written thirty years ago, and this
university teacher, a scholar, was completely unaware of their
The state is partly responsible for this lack of information.
The 1993 agreement between the Holy See and Israel was only made
public in 1999. A second agreement, regarding the juridical status
of the Catholic Church in Israel, ratified in February 1999, has
yet to be published officially. We intend to request a revision of
the way in which Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church are
presented in Israel in school curricula and in official speeches,
and that the people of Israel are duly informed of the process
made in Catholic/Jewish relations. Since Vatican II the Church has
revised its way of referring to the Jews in its liturgy,
catechesis and theology; now it is the turn of the Jews to do the
same regarding Christians.
FIDES: Ehud Olmert, mayor of Jerusalem, has said the Pope
should not question the state of Israel as Israel's "eternal
JAEGER:I am against this fetishism of referring to capitals as
"eternal." Capital cities are historical--political but
not eternal. God alone is eternal. Moreover, the state of Israel
has promised to find a fair and negotiated solution to the
question. This is also the position of the Holy See. The question
of Jerusalem must be settled not unilaterally, but on the
international level. The territorial future of Jerusalem and the
city's political destiny can be decided by Israel and Palestinians
together. In fact at Oslo, Israel committed itself to finding a
negotiated solution for Jerusalem.
As far as the Church in concerned, whatever its political
future, the city must be shared, not divided. The Church also asks
for guarantees at the international level, in keeping with UN
principles, such as the safeguarding of the city's religious and
cultural heritage; the status quo of the holy places; access to
holy places for all believers. United Nations resolution 181
(1947) stated the same objectives, in view of making the territory
international. However this has since appeared impracticable.
The same finalities can find a non territorial solution, of
common accord between Israel and Palestinians on the one hand and
the international community on the other. The Palestinians have
already endorsed this view, and this is encouraging. There is
nothing to stop Israel from doing the same. Jews and Palestinians
of goodwill want a Jerusalem which is shared not divided, in which
perhaps West Jerusalem could be the Jewish capital, East Jerusalem
the capital of Palestine. In fact although Israel has made
Jerusalem its capital, it is also committed to finding a
negotiated solution for the city: the only answer is a shared
FIDES: What do you hope the Pope's visit will achieve?
JAEGER: Speaking on Israeli television a few days ago I said
that the Pope calls the peoples of this Holy Land to lift up their
eyes, to free themselves of their attachment to their own little
things, securities, cunning tactics, possessions. The Pope calls
for unity among the peoples of the Holy Land, counting on the
common values of these children of Abraham. We must work with, not
against, one another.
FIDES: What steps must be taken to guarantee peace?
JAEGER: Politics must remain secular. To mix politics with
religion is deleterious for this area. All sides must work for
secular states of Israel and of Palestine. This will guarantee
peace, rights for all citizens including women, respect for
minorities. It will also guarantee the freedom of the Church in
the Middle East.
In the Middle East too little is said about man, still less
about women, and almost too much about God. For the survival of
Middle Eastern society, and of Christians in the region, states
must be secular. Politics in the Muslim and Israeli societies at
the moment are a struggle between secular and theocratic forces.
It is hoped that the secular moves will win. The majority of the
people in Israel want religion and state to be separate. The very
fact that the Papal Visit is taking place, is an indication that
the fundamentalist and theocratic currents are not so popular. The
cordial atmosphere regarding the Pope's arrival, in Israel and in
Palestine, shows that these societies are secular and pluralist.
FIDES: Is there competition between Palestine and Israel
regarding hospitality for the Pope?
JAEGER: The Pope's visit to the Holy Land includes Palestine
which at the moment has considerable autonomous space. The fact
that the Pope will be received by the Palestinian Authorities is
an indication of the Pontiff's respect for these people and their
suffering. The Holy See has always had at heart the vicissitudes
of the Palestinian people, supporting their rightful aspiration to
live side by side with their Jewish neighbors in freedom and
The nation of Palestine is in transition from a state of
autonomous territories to total independence. The road is not
finished but in the coming months a significant peace pact should
be reached. In the Holy Land the winning card is