Posted by Register Holy Land correspondent Michele Chabin:
Israeli officials, like their Jordanian and Palestinian counterparts, are hoping that Pope Benedict’s weeklong pilgrimage to the Holy Land, which began last Friday, will provide a major tourism boost to the troubled region.
Hours before the Pope touched down at Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport today, Israeli Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov called on “the Christian world, and especially the Catholic world, to come to the Holy Land as pilgrims. We are ready to receive you, to offer you various touring packages.”
Reiterating the words of Pope John Paul II, the tourism minister called on all Christians “to visit the Holy Land at least once during your lifetime.”
Misezhnikov said he plans to meet with “key bishops” in a number of Catholic countries to encourage pilgrims to visit Israel, which welcomed 3 million visitors last year, two-thirds of them pilgrims.
Every 100,000 creates 4,000 jobs, the minister noted.
Mayor Ramiz Jaraisy, mayor of the mixed Christian-Muslim town of Nazareth in the Galilee, called the papal visit scheduled for Thursday, May 14, ”first-class exposure for us. We’re expecting a wave of tourism following this.”
Nazareth, which is 30% Christian, suffers from relatively high unemployment. An estimated 15,000 Catholic pilgrims are accompanying the Pope during his Holy Land visit.
Asked whether he is concerned that Muslim extremists will try to put a damper on the festivities (some have called for a boycott of the pilgrimage), Jaraisy replied, “This is a small minority if a rather vociferous one. The atmosphere for the visit is very positive.”
Well, yes and no.
In an April 30 interview with the Jerusalem Post, Sheikh Nazim Abu Salim, the imam of the Shihab-e-Din Mosque in downtown Nazareth, said the Pope had “declared his war on Islam” and “defamed the prophet ... and the nation of Islam” when he quoted a medieval text that Muslims feel insulted Islam during his speech in 2005 in Regensburg, Bavaria.
“We cannot accept whoever insults the prophet,” Abu Salim said of the prophet Mohammed.
Sheikh Salim also criticized Benedict for visiting Israel so soon after its wintertime military operation against Hamas militants in Gaza. The pilgrimage, the Muslim leader implied, granted legitimacy to Israel’s actions.
“The blood shed from [Israel’s recent Gaza offensive] has still not dried,” and yet the Pope was visiting the government of Israel and its ministers, he said.
Salim said he was also against the Pope’s visit to the Western Wall, which he called “an inseparable part” of the al-Aksa Mosque. “He is legitimizing the occupation of the blessed al-Aksa,” Salim said.
While most Israeli Jews — and Muslims — appeared to welcome Benedict’s visit, some Jews are still upset by the Pope’s decision to welcome excommunicated Bishop Richard Williamson back into the Church. (Benedict subsequently insisted that Williamson retract his statements questioning the extent of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust.)
A Jewish organization calling itself Generation to Generation asked Israelis to honk their horns at the exact hour the Pope was scheduled to enter the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
Said the organization in a statement, “We must demonstrate that we are not and will not be fooled by empty gestures of a leader who supports Holocaust deniers and blatant anti-Semites.”