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Pope arrives in Israel and already rankles Israelis

JERUSALEM — Pope Benedict XVI waded straight into Middle East politics Monday as he began an historic five-day pilgrimage meant to strengthen the Vatican's strained relationship with Israel and boost his profile as a beacon of peace in the Holy Land.

Minutes after landing at Ben-Gurion International Airport, Benedict irked some Israeli politicians by calling for the establishment of a Palestinian homeland alongside Israel.

In his closely scrutinized afternoon visit to Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial, the one-time Hitler Youth conscript disappointed prominent Jewish leaders by voicing what they said was insufficient compassion for Holocaust victims.

The Vatican ended the day by distancing itself from a Muslim leader who delivered an unscheduled anti-Israel speech during an interfaith service with the pope at an historic church outside Jerusalem's Old City walls.

It all played out before Benedict had delivered his first sermon in Jerusalem or set off to meet Palestinian refugees living in the shadow of Israel's concrete separation wall snaking around Bethlehem, the Biblical birthplace of Jesus Christ.

Monday's events made clear the challenge facing Benedict in assuaging skeptics of other faiths about his intentions as leader of the world's 1.4 billion Roman Catholics.

Christians, Muslims and Jews are closely watching the pope's deeds and dissecting his every word.

Did Benedict disrespect Holocaust survivors by referring to the "killing" of "millions" of Jews instead of the "murder" of "6 million Jews?"

"We had some high expectations," said Avner Shalev, chairman of Israel's Yad Vashem Directorate. "So perhaps an opportunity was missed."

After re-igniting the eternal flame illuminating a tomb containing the ashes of concentration camp victims, Benedict called the Holocaust a "horrific tragedy" and expressed "deep compassion" for its millions of Jewish victims.

With anger lingering over Benedict's decision to rescind the excommunication of a cardinal who challenged the worst horrors of the Holocaust, Benedict said the suffering of Jewish victims should never be "denied, belittled or forgotten."

Benedict personally greeted six Holocaust survivors and said that Nazi victims "had lost their lives, but they will never lose their names."

It wasn't enough for leaders of Yad Vashem, however.

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the chairman of the Yad Vashem Council and Tel Aviv's chief rabbi, said Benedict's speech was "devoid of any compassion, any regret, any pain over the horrible tragedy of the 6 million victims."

"What was missing was, 'I'm sorry for the tragedy that befell you,'" Lau told Israel's Channel 2. "If not an apology, at least an expression of remorse."

Yad Vashem leaders wondered why the pope described the Nazi genocide as "killing" instead of "murder."

Benedict faces a difficult challenge in reassuring Israelis of his intentions and building on the trailblazing relations established by John Paul II, who became the first pope to visit Israel in 2000.

As a teenager, Benedict was forced to join the Hitler Youth and then drafted to serve in a German military before deserting two years later at war's end.

More troubling for some Israelis was Benedict's decision in January to rescind the excommunication of Richard Williamson, a British bishop who has aligned himself with Holocaust deniers by questioning the numbers of Jews killed in concentration camps.

Williamson refused to recant his views, and eventually, Benedict conceded that he'd made mistakes in handling the case and should've known about Williamson's statements before lifting the excommunication.

During his Yad Vashem visit, Benedict deliberately avoided a Holocaust museum that includes a display that's critical of the Vatican's role in World War II and accuses the wartime pope of standing by silently as Jews were taken away to concentration camps.

The Vatican has long sought to have the display changed and one of Benedict's cardinals once suggested that the pope would never visit as long as the museum refused to soften the language.

While Benedict said before his arrival that he was not embarking on a political Middle East mission, he began his visit in Israel by embracing a two-state solution the country's new right-leaning government refuses to embrace.

Israelis and Palestinian should "live in peace in a homeland of their own within secure and internationally recognized borders," Benedict said at the airport, accompanied by Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Benedict is likely to further test Vatican relations with Israel when he travels to a Palestinian refugee camp outside Bethlehem that abuts a towering concrete section of Israel's separation barrier.

Benedict will be the first pope to see the Israeli separation barrier, and Palestinians are hoping he will use the setting to deliver a more impassioned plea for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Simmering political tensions bubbled over Monday night when the pope attended an interfaith service at Notre Dame church near Jerusalem's Old City.

As the service was winding down, Sheikh Taysir Tamimi, a Palestinian cleric, took the podium and denounced Israel in an unplanned address that stunned participants.

Ignoring attempts by participants to silence him, Tamimi accused Israel of slaughtering Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and denounced Israeli military policies against Palestinians, according to Israel's daily Haaretz newspaper.

"It was shameful and disgraceful," said Father Gianni Caputa, a Christian leader, of interfaith efforts. "Sheikh Tamimi betrayed the trust of the people who invited him to this fathering."

Oded Weiner, director-general of Israel's Chief Rabbinate said he was "shocked and embarrassed."

Within hours, the Vatican had issued a statement calling Tamimi's speech "a direct negation of what a dialogue should be."

"We hope that such an incident will not damage the mission of the pope aiming at promoting peace and also interreligious dialogue," the Vatican said.

(McClatchy special correspondent Cliff Churgin in Jerusalem and pool reports contributed to this article.)


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