Pope Benedict XVI hopes his planned visit to Jerusalem’s Western Wall next month will be taken as a gesture of reconciliation in the long-troubled relationship between Judaism and the Catholic Church. But at least one influential rabbi will take offense unless the pontiff removes or conceals the golden cross he wears on a chain around his neck, “out of respect” for the Jews.
Explaining his demand that Benedict hide the very symbol of the Catholicism he represents, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, the spiritual authority responsible for overseeing Judaism’s most sacred site, told TIME, “I wouldn’t go into a church wearing Jewish symbols, out of respect for the place, and I would expect that the Pope would act the same here.”
Quoting King Solomon, the rabbi says that the Temple in Jerusalem was “a house of prayer for all people, not just Jews.” He added: “We welcome this Pope. But he should show respect for other religions.”
But Catholics counter that it is the rabbi who should show a bit more respect for the pontiff, and not ask him to hide the cross that symbolizes his faith. Said Wadie Abunassar, Media Coordinator in Jerusalem for Benedict’s trip, said, “I can’t see the Holy Father removing his cross for any reason. He always wears a cross.”
Given the legacy of bitterness left by centuries of Jewish persecution at the hands of the Catholic church, the Pope’s sartorial choices during his visit to the Wall are unlikely to be the only political minefield of the trip. The Jewish community is in an uproar over Benedict’s decision in January to lift the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop, a decision for which the Pope later apologized. During his Jerusalem visit, Benedict will pay respects at the Holocaust Memorial at Yad Vashem, but he will bypass a room containing a plaque claiming that the wartime pontiff, Pius XII, failed to stand up for the Jews against the Nazis.
Even though the Vatican says it has received no formal request for the Pope to remove his golden crucifix during his visit to the Wall, Rabbi Rabinovitch’s comments are bound to raise tensions on the eve of the trip. Israel’s Foreign Ministry tried to smooth the waters by saying in a statement that “in accordance with rules of hospitality and dignity,” the State of Israel will not prevent the Pope from wearing his cross when he visits the Western Wall.
But it is the rabbis rather than the government who hold sway at the Western Wall,
and Rabbi Rabinovitch has twice previously turned away Christian delegations. In November 2007 he refused to let Austrian bishops near the wall after they would not remove or conceal their crosses, and in May 2008 he refused a request from a group of Irish bishops and prelates to visit the site. “They wanted to wear their crosses openly,” Rabinovitch says. His rebuff of the Irish bishops was deemed “provocative” by one Church source who asked to remain anonymous.
Explaining the intensity of feeling over the quintessential symbol of Christianity, Rabbi Ron Kronish, director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, a Jerusalem group promoting religious dialogue, says that there exists among ultra-Orthodox Jews “a certain allergy towards the cross.” Asking the Pope to remove his cross, he says, is “part of the ongoing paranoia of Jewish history. But it doesn’t show respect for the leader of another major religion.”
Rabinovitch was in charge of the Western Wall during the visit of the late Pope John Paul II in 2000, when the pontiff prayed and twisted a written message into the cracks of the ancient stones, observing the Jewish belief that all prayers made at the Wall are answered. Rabbi Rabinovitch insists that John Paul II did not wear a visible crucifix during his visit to the site, but photographs taken during that visit clearly show the Polish Pope wearing his familiar golden cross as he touched the wall, head bowed.
Benedict, on his Jerusalem visit, also plans to tour the nearby Dome of the Rock, built on the site where Christianity, Judaism and Islam all believe that God prevented Abraham from sacrificing his son. For centuries, the shrine has been under Muslim control. A leading Muslim cleric, Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi, Chief Justice of the Shariah law courts in East Jerusalem, told TIME that cross or not, the Pope would be honored. “We would never object to his physical appearance. We don’t believe in interfering in another religion’s affairs.”
It’s possible that the fuss over the Pope’s cross will blow over before Benedict arrives, since Rabinovitch’s edict could be overruled by Israel’s two chief rabbis, who are more politically attuned to the questions of the country’s international image. Abunassar, the pontiff’s media coordinator, says that the goal of Benedict’s trip is “to promote peace between Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. ” In these troubled times, that can be an uphill battle in the Holy Land.
With reporting by Aaron J. Klein/Jerusalem