Beliefnet
JERUSALEM, March 27 (RNS)--Ziad Boutros, a tall and muscular career soldier in the Jordanian army, was standing by a dusty roadside in the Jordanian town of Madaba waiting with his wife and two small children for Pope John Paul II to pass through the ancient Christian enclave near Mount Nebo.

It was Monday, March 20, the first day of the pontiff's historic Holy Land visit, and the pope had gone to the nearby mountain to pray, gaze, and meditate from the lookout where tradition says Moses was permitted by God to see the Promised Land before his death.

Unlike Moses, the aging and ailing pope got to see, enter and touch the holy stones of the Promised Land last week, on a symbolic journey of faith that may have been the climax of his papacy.

And the soldier Boutros--like millions of Christians, Muslims and Jews in the region and around the world--shared vicariously in this pilgrim's spiritual journey and mission of peace to a land holy to the world's three great monotheistic religions.

"It was an exceptional trip," said the Rev. Robert Fortin, secretary general of the Jubilee Committee for the Conference of Catholic Bishops in the Holy Land.

"I guess only history will tell us whether it will have really long-lasting consequences in the way his trip to Poland did at the beginning of his pontificate--a trip that helped change the face of Europe and hasten the fall of communism. But coming at the end of his pontificate, it is a beautiful capstone to his career," Fortin said.

From Mount Nebo, to the West Bank Palestinian Deheisheh Refugee camp, and the conversations with Jewish Holocaust survivors at the Jerusalem Holocaust memorial of Yad Vashem, the visit was full of symbolic moments and gestures.

Those moments spoke even more powerfully than the pontiff's homilies, delivered in a cracked and fading English.

He prostrated himself before the entrance to Christianity's Church of the Holy Sepulcher; slipped a written prayer into the cracks of the Western Wall, Judaism's most holy site; and ascended to Al-Aksa Mosque, on Jerusalem's ancient Temple Mount, to meet Islam's top Jerusalem leader here.

In every locale, the pope sought over and over to demonstrate his spiritual and emotional identification with every religious persuasion, every partisan in a troubled region.

"This pope came to be nonpartisan, and I think he did in a masterful way," said Rabbi Ron Kronish, head of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel. "He was an actor when he was younger, so he has value for the theater. And this was a lot of theater, good theater. His gestures spoke louder than his words, which were often hard to hear."

The visit touched the hearts and minds of Jews here in a way unlike that of any other visit by a Christian figure.

Whereas until the visit, the 30-year Jewish-Catholic rapprochement and dialogue had been largely the purview of scholars and theologians, the weeklong pilgrimage opened up the reconciliation process to the Jewish and Israeli public.

The real turning point for Israelis came on Thursday, when the pope met for the first time ever with Israel's top Orthodox rabbinical leadership and later with Holocaust survivors at Yad Vashem.

"It was a rare and moving moment for Israel and the Jewish community," said Yossi Kucik, director general of Prime Minister Ehud Barak's office, who was present at the ceremonies. "As I stood there, a second-generation Holocaust survivor, I saw my father and grandfather's figures flit before my eyes. To see him asking the Jewish people for forgiveness, it was a rare gift."

More so than the theological aspects of his statements, the humanity of the pontiff finally seemed to captivate Israelis at this moment. Veteran Israeli journalists and radio broadcasters choked with emotion as they listened to the Polish-born Edit Sirev describe how the pope had carried her on his back when as a young girl she was making her way from a Nazi work camp to Krakow, just after the liberation of Poland.

They learned for the first time about the pope's childhood friend Jurik Kluger, a Jew who survived the war and even accompanied the pontiff at Yad Vashem. Through such accounts, Israelis were finally able to appreciate how the young Wojtyla had personally defied the currents of Polish anti-Semitism.

"The secret that we in the interfaith business knew for 30 years was mentioned over and over again by all of the major political commentators," remarked Kronish. "This pope had a special connection to the Jewish people. Until the visit, Israelis and Jews around the world were largely ignorant about the pope and the Vatican. Now, suddenly all of the documents were published in the press and extensively discussed. People learned a lot."

The Palestinian Authority, as well, publicly expressed its satisfaction with the pope's visits to Bethlehem, Deheisheh Refugee Camp and Al-Aksa Mosque-- visits that focused world attention on the Palestinian refugee issue, as well as the conflict over the status of Jerusalem.
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