A pilgrim's progress: Pope Benedict's journey through the Holy Land stirs religious passions in a region where a Christian exodus is under way.

Author:Blanche, Ed


Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the Holy Land in May did not hold a candle to the triumphant, ground-breaking progress of his charismatic predecessor and mentor, John Paul II, nine years earlier. Few had expected the shy, professorial Benedict to sweep all before him as John Paul had done on his historic visit, and he didn't. Too much had changed since March 2000. Back then, there were still expectations that the Palestinian-Israeli peace process was going somewhere. To the world at large, Osama bin Laden was still only a spectre lurking in the shadows. History's most cataclysmic terrorist outrage was still 18 months in the future, along with the gory convulsions it would trigger, among them what Muslims perceived as a new Christian crusade against them.

So when the 82-year-old German-born pontiff, a conservative who espouses a return to Catholic values, made his pilgrimage to Jordan, Israel and the West Bank on 8-15 May, he was walking into a political and religious minefield at a time when militant Islam is on the march and Christianity is very much on the retreat in the region from whence it sprang more than two millennia ago. At every turn, one player or another in the region's complex disputes sought to use the presence of the leader of the world's 1.1bn Catholics to score political points.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, a right-wing hawk who fiercely opposes the creation of a viable Palestinian state, even tried during a 15-minute meeting in Jerusalem to persuade the pontiff to use his moral authority on Iran to abandon its nuclear arms programme, which the Israelis see as an existential threat.

It was Benedict's first visit to the region since he became the 265th Bishop of Rome on 19 April 2005. He arrived carrying a lot of religious baggage, politically charged ecclesiastical controversies that have incensed Muslims and Jews alike, and they dogged him throughout his eight-day tour.

First of all, he had antagonised Muslims back in 2006 when, during a controversial lecture on faith and reason at the University of Regensberg in his native Germany, where he taught theology in the 1970s, Benedict quoted a medieval text attributed to the 14th century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus which allegedly expressed the ruler's contempt for Islam.

Muslims everywhere, from Iraq to Indonesia, denounced the pontiff for offending Islam, fuelling the view of the Roman Catholic Church held by many Muslims as just...

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