BACKGROUND FOR POPE'S VISIT TO HOLY LAND
March 16, 2000

JERUSALEM (FIDES/CWNews.com) -- In preparation for the visit by Pope
John Paul II to the Holy Land, the Fides news agency interviewed Father
David Jaeger, OFM-- one of the people most knowledgeable about the Church
in the Holy Land and the relations between Christians and Jews.

Father Jaeger, a Jewish convert, is a member of the Holy See Delegation to
the bilateral Commission with Israel. He was among those who worked on
the Holy See/Israel agreement, and among the first to comment on the basic
agreement with the Palestinian Authority. The Franciscan priest now teaches
at the Pontifical Antonianum College in Rome.

The following is the text of the Fides interview:

FIDES: Father Jaeger what is the attitude towards the  Holy Father's
imminent visit?

JAEGER: The Jews in Jerusalem are showing great interest and I would say
that the atmosphere is decidedly positive. Although the Pope has underlined
that the visit is part of his spiritual "jubilee pilgrimage," people here regard
it as a visit to their country and are preparing to give him a warm welcome.
They are curious to know more about the Catholic Church and its faith. I
have noticed that for many journalists and ordinary people here, the Catholic
faith is almost a foreign world, unknown and rather fascinating.

The government, for its part has made the visit a national priority. Prime
Minister Ehud Barak decided to take personal responsibility for organization,
asking his nearest minister, Hon. Haim Ramon to devote himself completely
to the project. Even though it is not a state visit in the strict sense, Israel has
spared neither efforts nor resources.

Of course on the margins of social life there are groups with different views.
Orthodox Jewish leaders are diffident about opening to other believers,
Catholics in particular. They are convinced they must protect their religion
and their believers from Christianity's obvious attraction. They are troubled
by an imaginary threat of proselytism.

FIDES: Are these the same groups who worry about spreading atheism in
Israel?

JAEGER: Atheism is not a problem for the Jewish religion. For Orthodox Jews
what counts is to keep the precepts of the Law. The majority of Jews in
Israel are secular not religious, not practicing, but certainly not atheist.
Zionism, the national Jewish movement, is completely secular, not religious.
Its goal has always been to free the Jewish people from the yoke of other
nations by creating the state of Israel; but also to liberate the people from
the yoke of religious precepts, theocracy.

In the last few years a theocratic minority has gained influence and begun to
fight the secular state. There is a sort of battle of culture between secular
Jews and religious Jews trying to spread their influence to more areas. We
Christians hope for a victory of the seculars: a state is a state of freedom to
the extent that it is secular. The agreement reached between the Holy See
and Israel has as its first article, religious freedom, as also the UN Charter
and Israel's own declaration of independence.

The Pope's pilgrimage is spiritual but are there any political aspects? The
Church does not engage in politics. But, it is true that the Church of the Word
Incarnate walks in history and therefore inevitably also in geopolitics. It is
enough to look at the marked difference between this visit and Pope Paul
VI's visit to the Holy Land in 1964. Paul VI visited Israel (as well as Jordan).
But in those days there were no diplomatic relations between the Vatican
and Israel. Israeli President Salman Shazar had to go to Megiddo to meet the
Pope at least in an unofficial way. Israel felt somewhat humiliated by the
low-key tone of the visit; the Pope appeared unwilling to recognize its
existence. Since 1994 there are diplomatic relations, two agreements signed,
others in preparation to regulate various aspects of these relations.

FIDES: But has all this improved relations between the Catholic Church and
the Jews? Recently many Jews have complained that the Pope has not said
enough about Christian sins against the Jewish people.

JAEGER: The fact that the Pope will also visit the Yad Vashem holocaust
museum would appear to me a significant gesture. But it should be said that
in Israel almost nothing is known about the progress made in
Catholic/Jewish relations since Vatican II. In the next talks between Israel
and the Holy See we will discuss precisely how to make these achievements
known to the Jewish people. This will call for instruction.

At Tel Aviv University a few months ago I mentioned the changes in
relations with the Jews brought about by Vatican II. One of the teachers, a
woman, remarked: "How wonderful! What a surprise! What good news; it is
as if the Messiah has come!"  The Council documents were written thirty
years ago, and this university teacher, a scholar, was completely unaware of
their existence!

The state is partly responsible for this lack of information. The 1993
agreement between the Holy See and Israel was only made public in 1999. A
second agreement, regarding the juridical status of the Catholic Church in
Israel, ratified in February 1999, has yet to be published officially. We
intend to request a revision of the way in which Jesus Christ and the Catholic
Church are presented in Israel in school curricula and in official speeches,
and that the people of Israel are duly informed of the process made in
Catholic/Jewish relations. Since Vatican II the Church has revised its way of
referring to the Jews in its liturgy, catechesis and theology; now it is the turn
of the Jews to do the same regarding Christians.

FIDES: Ehud Olmert, mayor of Jerusalem, has said the Pope should not
question the state of Israel as Israel's "eternal capital"

JAEGER:I am against this fetishism of referring to capitals as "eternal." Capital
cities are historical--political but not eternal. God alone is eternal. Moreover,
the state of Israel has promised to find a fair and negotiated solution to the
question. This is also the position of the Holy See. The question of Jerusalem
must be settled not unilaterally, but on the international level. The territorial
future of Jerusalem and the city's political destiny can be decided by Israel
and Palestinians together. In fact at Oslo, Israel committed itself to finding a
negotiated solution for Jerusalem.

As far as the Church in concerned, whatever its political future, the city must
be shared, not divided. The Church also asks for guarantees at the
international level, in keeping with UN principles, such as the safeguarding
of the city's religious and cultural heritage; the status quo of the holy places;
access to holy places for all believers. United Nations resolution 181 (1947)
stated the same objectives, in view of making the territory international.
However this has since appeared impracticable.

The same finalities can find a non territorial solution, of common accord
between Israel and Palestinians on the one hand and the international
community on the other. The Palestinians have already endorsed this view,
and this is encouraging. There is nothing to stop Israel from doing the same.
Jews and Palestinians of goodwill want a Jerusalem which is shared not
divided, in which perhaps West Jerusalem could be the Jewish capital, East
Jerusalem the capital of Palestine. In fact although Israel has made
Jerusalem its capital, it is also committed to finding a negotiated solution for
the city: the only answer is a shared capital.

FIDES: What do you hope the Pope's visit will achieve?

JAEGER: Speaking on Israeli television a few days ago I said that the Pope
calls the peoples of this Holy Land to lift up their eyes, to free themselves of
their attachment to their own little things, securities, cunning tactics,
possessions. The Pope calls for unity among the peoples of the Holy Land,
counting on the common values of these children of Abraham. We must work
with, not against, one another.

FIDES: What steps must be taken to guarantee peace?

JAEGER: Politics must remain secular. To mix politics with religion is
deleterious for this area. All sides must work for secular states of Israel and
of Palestine. This will guarantee peace, rights for all citizens including
women, respect for minorities. It will also guarantee the freedom of the
Church in the Middle East.

In the Middle East too little is said about man, still less about women, and
almost too much about God. For the survival of Middle Eastern society, and of
Christians in the region, states must be secular. Politics in the Muslim and
Israeli societies at the moment are a struggle between secular and theocratic
forces. It is hoped that the secular moves will win. The majority of the
people in Israel want religion and state to be separate. The very fact that the
Papal Visit is taking place, is an indication that the fundamentalist and
theocratic currents are not so popular. The cordial atmosphere regarding the
Pope's arrival, in Israel and in Palestine, shows that these societies are
secular and pluralist.

FIDES: Is there competition between Palestine and Israel regarding
hospitality for the Pope?

JAEGER: The Pope's visit to the Holy Land includes Palestine which at the
moment has considerable autonomous space. The fact that the Pope will be
received by the Palestinian Authorities is an indication of the Pontiff's
respect for these people and their suffering. The Holy See has always had at
heart the vicissitudes of the Palestinian people, supporting their rightful
aspiration to live side by side with their Jewish neighbors in freedom and
security.

The nation of Palestine is in transition from a state of autonomous territories
to total independence. The road is not finished but in the coming months a
significant peace pact should be reached. In the Holy Land the winning card
is co-existence.