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Pope Benedict found the peace and unity he seeks on his pilgrimage to Israel, more than a little elusive on his first full day in the country. But in each case, the problem lay not so much with the Pope, as it did with his audience, both Jewish and Muslim.
Standing, wreath in hand, at Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, Pope Benedict declared the the names of those “killed” in the Holocaust, will never be forgotten. His use of the word “killed” instead of murdered to describe the victims, set off a fire storm among some Israelis, including more than one government minister. The Pope’s word choice was taken as an affront because the victims were referred to “only” as killed, as it that somehow dishonored their memory or failed to recognize the enormity of the evil which was the Shoah.
While I appreciate that personal pain might lead one to this conclusion, it strikes me as misguided in at least two ways:
First, if the central purpose of the Pope’s memorial visit was to recall the lives of those lost, and not to send a political message, then the killed/murdered distinction isn’t meaningful in that particualr context. Second, unlike the Hebrew Bible which teaches “thou shalt not murder”, both the Greek and Latin Translations of that same verse in Exodus 20, read “thou shalt not kill”. So from a theological perspective, which one imagines is most important to the Pope, the distinction does not exist. “Killed” or “murdered”, the victims of the Holocaust had their lives taken by those who violated God’s will for humankind.
But Muslims in the Holy Land had their moment also, and in some ways it was was far more troubling. Sheikh Tayseer al-Tamimi, s senior religious leader in the Paletinian Authority, lashed out at Pope Benedict during a meeting of Christian, Jewish and Muslim clergy.
Shouting out to the Pope, Tamimi accused Israel of “Murdering women and children; destroying mosques and palestinian cities.” Without debating either the accuracy of his claims or the sincerity with which he spoke, the Sheikh’s behavior points to his desire, not for peace or even reconciliation. His behavior points only to his desire to enlist the Pope in his own cause.
The Pope has come to Israel both seeking, and seeking to build, peace and unity. As I prepare to meet with him on Thursday I will keep that uppermost in my mind and pray that tomorrow is a better day.