Pope arrives, Palestinians try to politicize visit

Monday, May 11, 2009 |  Israel Today Staff

Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Israel on Monday and immediately snarled traffic in Jerusalem where he was greeted by President Shimon Peres and numerous government ministers.

Upon arrival, the pope told those who had gathered to greet him that his visit was a "personal pilgrimage" and sign of continuing strong Jewish-Christian relations. He emphasized his plans to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, a move many Israelis see as a stunt to cover up his past as a member of the "Hitler Youth" movement during World War II.

Beyond frustrating Israeli commuters and the issuing of obligatory feel-good declarations, this pope's visit looked poised to turn political real fast.

The fireworks kicked off on Monday when the Palestinian Authority tried to lay claim to handling the pope's movements and activities on the eastern side of Jerusalem.

Just hours before the pope arrived, police raided and shut down a conference hall at the Ambassador Hotel in eastern Jerusalem where Palestinian Authority officials were planning to hold a briefing with foreign and Palestinian reporters regarding the pontiff's visit.

A senior PA official told Ynet that the Palestinians would not be deterred by the police action, and insisted that "when the pope arrives in east Jerusalem, he and his visit are our responsibility."

The Palestinians insist that eastern Jerusalem be the capital of the state they are trying to establish on ancient Jewish lands.

Israel's current peace agreements with the PA prevent the latter from operating in any official capacity in Jerusalem until after a final status peace deal, but that hasn't stopped the PA.

The Palestinians also looked to politicize the pope's scheduled visit to Bethlehem on Wednesday by setting up a stage for him to address local residents adjacent to the Israeli security fence. But the Palestinians tried to build the stage right next to an Israeli guard tower, prompting an order from the army to halt construction. It now appears that the papal delegation will choose a different site for the pope to speak in Bethlehem.

Additionally, reports last week indicated the pope's agenda while in Jerusalem would include pressuring the Israeli leadership to surrender several key Christian sites around the country to the Vatican.

Peres is said to be in favor of handing over the sites, including Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives and the whole of Mt. Tabor in the Lower Galilee, but most members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government reject the Catholic Church's exclusive claims.

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