POPE-ISRAEL (UPDATED) Dec-14-2006
(From The Catholic News Service)
Pope, Israeli official discuss problems of Christians in Holy Land


By Cindy Wooden Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Meeting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Pope Benedict XVI raised questions regarding the situation of the dwindling Catholic population in the Holy Land, including in Bethlehem, the Vatican said.
The Vatican said the pope voiced his concerns particularly in light of the approaching celebration of Christmas.
The pope and prime minister met for 26 minutes Dec. 13 in a small meeting room in the back of the Vatican's audience hall.
Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh told a press conference Dec. 11 that a serious drop in Christian tourism to his town, emigration and Israel's erection of a security fence cutting many Bethlehem residents off from jobs in nearby Jerusalem were having a disastrous impact on Bethlehem and its residents.
Oded Ben-Hur, the Israeli ambassador to the Vatican, told Catholic News Service that the pope spoke about "the difficult situation of the Christian community in Bethlehem."
"The prime minister promised to do everything possible to alleviate" the community's suffering and to ease Christians' access to Bethlehem over the Christmas holidays, the ambassador said.
The Vatican's Dec. 13 statement also said the pope and prime minister spoke about peace in the Middle East.
Ben-Hur said Pope Benedict thanked the prime minister for Israeli's declaration of a cease-fire with Palestinian militias, although Ben-Hur said the prime minister said it is getting more and more difficult "to withhold reactions" to missiles being launched into Israel from Gaza.
Ben-Hur said that when Olmert renewed a government invitation for the pope to visit Israel, the pope said he really wanted to make such a trip, but was looking for "a moment of calm."
"The prime minister told him, 'You can bring the calm,'" the ambassador said.
The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, also met Olmert and later told reporters that hope for "a visit to Israel and the Holy Land is in the pope's heart," but that such a trip could not take place until there is "peace or, at least, a stable and secure cease-fire."
Pope Benedict and Olmert met as Vatican and Israeli government representatives were scheduled to meet in Jerusalem to continue on-again, off-again negotiations regarding the legal and tax status of the Catholic Church and its institutions in Israel.
Ben-Hur said Olmert told the pope he had instructed the Israeli negotiators "to make every effort to finalize the agreements."
The meeting also came one day after the Vatican issued a strong statement in opposition to the Iranian government's Dec. 11-12 conference questioning whether the Holocaust took place.
Telling the pope he was "the world's most revered moral voice," Olmert asked the pope to denounce anti-Semitism in general and the Iran conference specifically, Ben-Hur said.
Pope Benedict told the prime minister the Vatican had issued a statement Dec. 12, but said he was willing to add to the statement or clarify it if the prime minister felt it would make the Vatican's position even more clear, the ambassador said.
Ben-Hur also said the pope and prime minister spoke about Pope Benedict's Nov. 28-Dec. 1 trip to Turkey and that Olmert asked the pope to continue "to encourage moderate Islam."