JERUSALEM, March 14 (RNS) -- Pope John Paul II's historic visit to the Holy Land a year ago helped end a long history of mistrust and misunderstanding between Christians and Jews around the world, according to Cardinal Edward Cassidy, the head of the Vatican's ecumenical office.

But there is little the Vatican can do to bridge the current gulf of mistrust and suspicion between Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Holy Land until a political settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is achieved, Cassidy said in a speech here Tuesday, marking the anniversary of the pontiff's visit.

Cassidy made his comments at a symposium sponsored by the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel.

``We are terribly concerned about what is happening here,'' said Cassidy, the outgoing president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and head of its Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews.

``What we don't know is how we can help people to solve the problem,'' he added. ``If two people are having a fight, you can't help them unless they stop fighting. If you get in the middle you get hit by both sides. Our assessment is that at this moment we cannot bring the groups together.''

Yet, Cassidy said, probably no other Catholic figure has presided over such a revolution in Jewish-Christian relations as has John Paul II.

Reviewing the milestones, Cassidy cited the pope's landmark 1986 visit to Rome's main synagogue, the 1998 Vatican document on the Holocaust, ``We Remember,'' the Vatican's 1993 recognition of the state of Israel, and the pope's own prayer for forgiveness for the injustice suffered by Jews at the hands of Christians, recited in St. Peter's Square just prior to last year's trip to the Holy Land.

But the most poignant symbol of the changing relationship, as Cassidy described it, was the pope's visit to the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, on the final day of his visit.

``This visit symbolized the humility of the church,'' said Cassidy. ``By standing there, he transformed the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. It was a direct reversal of history.''

Cassidy rebutted claims that the aftermath of the pope's visit had been a letdown for many Jews because of the Vatican decision to advance the beatifications of 19th century Pope Pius IX, who raised a Jewish child taken from his family as a Catholic, and Pope Pius XII, who has been criticized for his actions during the Holocaust.

``I realize the misunderstanding that exists with regards to those beatifications but one has to realize that we haven't gotten to the point where we can agree on everything,'' Cassidy said.

Cassidy said he also hoped the new committee of Jewish and Catholic scholars who are studying selected excerpts from the Vatican's World War II archives would also help relations between the two faith communities. The committee is charged with exploring the church's record during the Holocaust.

``The problem is that while the Jews would like to see things done yesterday, in the Vatican they like to see things done in eternity,'' Cassidy quipped.

As for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Cassidy said reflections on the pope's visit a year ago should only strengthen current aspirations for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. To underline his point, Cassidy quoted a Jan. 6, 2001 papal letter, which said: ``I received an extraordinary welcome, not only from the members of the church but also from the Israeli and the Palestinian communities. Thinking back to the mood of those days, I cannot but express my deeply felt desire for a prompt and just solution to the still-unresolved problems of the holy places cherished by Jews, Christians, and Muslims together.''

Yet while Vatican officials seem to believe a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will have to precede any thaw in relations between local Christians, Jews and Muslims, the church remains involved in low-profile efforts and quiet diplomacy aimed at bridging the gulf, Cassidy said.

Cassidy's own two-day visit to Israel is part of that effort, said Monsignor Pietro Sambi, the Vatican's diplomatic representative to both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

``My impression is that there is a big premise among Israelis and Palestinians that peace is no longer possible, dialogue is no longer possible,'' observed Sambi. ``Visits like this one are part of an effort to infuse the situation with some hope.''

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