Pope Francis will adhere to a policy of “total balance” regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, his close friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka said Wednesday in Jerusalem, though he noted that Francis’s scheduled laying of a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl would be “a meaningful act.”
Four days before the pontiff’s scheduled arrival in the region, Skorka dismissed reports that the pope would use his speeches in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories to recognize the “State of Palestine” and call for an end of the “occupation” of the West Bank.
Pope Francis himself on Wednesday described his upcoming trip as “strictly religious” and aimed at praying for peace in the region.
“He will try to be balanced,” said Skorka, the rector of the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires, who became friends with the pope years ago when he was still Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio.
Archbishop Guiseppe Lazzarotto, the Holy See’s chief diplomatic envoy to Israel, likewise rejected the notion that the pope might make controversial policy statements during his two days in Israel and the Palestinian areas. “The visit is absolutely not political,” the apostolic nuncio told The Times of Israel during a visit to Mount Herzl, where together with Foreign Ministry staff he inspected the site ahead of the pope’s scheduled stop there on Monday. Francis will lay a wreath at the grave of Zionist visionary Herzl.
The Vatican’s official website for the visit to the Holy Land lists a “courtesy visit to the President of the State of Palestine” for Sunday, and AP reported that West Bank artisans “are fashioning a cross with cement pieces of Israel’s [security] barrier for the Palestinian president to give the pope.” One Israeli website has been quoting sources saying that the pope considers himself the “Che Guevara of the Palestinians” and that he will be seeking to support their “struggle and rights” during his visit. “He is taking a helicopter directly from Jordan to Palestine — to Bethlehem. It’s a kind of sign of recognizing Palestine,” Father Jamal Khader of the Latin patriarchate in Jerusalem was quoted as saying.
Skorka has been invited, together with Imam Omar Abboud, a leader of Argentina’s Muslim community, to join the pope during the trip. “This will be the first time that non-Christians are traveling on the pope’s plane,” Skorka said in Spanish, speaking through an interpreter.
Speaking at an event organized by the Jerusalem Press Club and Fuente Latina, Skorka noted that Francis’s visit to Mount Herzl and Herzl’s grave could be understood as a nod to Zionism. “That is a meaningful act,” Skorka said. “He understands the importance of the land of Israel and the state of Israel to the Jewish people.” The two last popes who visited Israel — John Paul II in 2000 and Benedict XVI in 2009 — did not visit Herzl’s grave. (The first pope to visit, Paul VI in 1964, steadfastly refused to acknowledge that he was even in Israel.)
The pope is coming to send a message of peace and interfaith understanding, Skorka said, adding that the fact that he asked a rabbi and an imam to join him underlined his conviction that unity and peace can be achieved. The pope will be joined by the two clergymen for a joint prayer at the Western Wall on Monday, the rabbi noted.
Francis’s close ties to the Jews of Argentina are fairly well known. He and Skorka have been close friends since the days when Francis was known as cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires. In September 2013, Skorka spent a week at St. Martha’s House, the papal residence at the Vatican. The two also coauthored a book, “On Heaven and Earth,” and have prayed from each other’s pulpits.
Skorka said he didn’t remember exactly how his conversations with Bergoglio began, but the two had come to know each other through the city’s religious events. Skorka wrote articles on interfaith issues for a newspaper the cardinal read. In person, they would needle each other about whose soccer team was winning. But more than that, Skorka said they were united in trying to reach people who had fallen away from their own religions and instead worshiped what the rabbi calls the “idols” of money, power and sex. Growing secularism has hit both the Catholic Church and Jewish communities in Latin America. The church has also lost many parishioners to popular Pentecostal movements.
In an interview in November, Skorka had said he hoped to pray with the pope both at the Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray, and in Bethlehem, “to show the world it is possible.”
Spencer Ho and the Associated Press contributed to this report.