Pope's trip to Holy Land stirs diplomatic dilemmas

By Daniela Berretta

Associated Press

Published: Friday, May 16 2014 8:00 a.m. MDT

Pope Paul VI, the first pope to come to Jerusalem, made history in 1964 when he met Patriarch Athenagoras, the then-spiritual leader of the world's Greek Orthodox Christians, and the two hugged in a landmark embrace. The meeting ended 900 years of estrangement between the churches.

Francis' visit — on the 50th anniversary of that historic embrace — aims to further relations between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, Vatican officials say.

Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, will meet in Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which marks the traditional site of Jesus' burial.

Representatives of other churches will also be present, including the first leader of Lebanon's largest Christian sect, the Maronite Catholic Church, to visit Jerusalem since Israel captured the city's eastern sector.

This has triggered anger in Lebanon, which bans its citizens from traveling to archenemy Israel. The leading Lebanese daily, As Safir, called the visit by Cardinal Bechara Rai "a historic sin."

The militant Hezbollah group warned that Rai's trip to Jerusalem could have "dangerous and negative repercussions."

Irabhim Amin al-Sayyed, head of Hezbollah's politburo, met with Rai on Friday to present his group's reservations. Rai has defended his trip, which he described as a religious pilgrimage.

Tempers are also flaring over another stop on Francis' tour, which is at the center of an Israel-Vatican dispute — the Room of the Last Supper, where Jesus was said to have had his final meal with his disciples before his crucifixion.

Ultra-Orthodox nationalist Jews have plastered Jerusalem with posters furiously claiming Israel will give the Vatican control there.

The room is located in a Crusader-era building that belonged to Franciscan friars in the 14th century but was transferred to Ottoman authorities in the 16th century and taken over by Israel in 1948. To complicate matters, the building's ground floor is revered by Jews as the tomb of the biblical King David.

The Vatican has for years petitioned Israel for more Christian access. Israel generally prohibits celebrating Mass there and restricts Catholic prayers to twice a year, on Holy Thursday and Pentecost. It has refused greater access, wary of setting a precedent of relinquishing properties taken over in the 1948 war.

Still, it will let Francis hold Mass in the room, as it did with Benedict.

A senior Catholic official said the two sides were close to a deal allowing official daily liturgical prayer there, but not a transfer of control.

An Israeli official declined to discuss details, but said negotiators have reached agreement on most disputes involving church properties. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the negotiations.

Follow Daniel Estrin at twitter.com/danielestrin. Associated Press writer Zeina Karam contributed to this report from Beirut, Lebanon.

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