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In Holy Land, Pope Impressed Officials of All Sides, Religions

By Lee Hockstader

Having addressed his message of contrition to God and tucked it into a crevice in the Western Wall, Pope John Paul II shuffled wordlessly away. He’d said his piece.

But Israeli officials were taking no chances. Before the page of Vatican stationery could be swept up by a breeze or purloined by media crews, they snatched it from the Wall and dispatched it to Yad Vashem, the Jewish state’s main Holocaust memorial.

There it will be displayed as tangible evidence of the pope’s plea for “genuine brotherhood with the people of the covenant,” and of a visit that transformed ties between the world’s Roman Catholics and the people he calls their “elder brothers,” the Jews.

In six breathtaking days in the Holy Land, Pope John Paul II not only stayed on message -- a plea for reconciliation, co-existence and peace in a turbulent region. He also effected a tectonic shift in interfaith relations between Catholics and Jews, won the hearts and minds of all but a few Israelis and gave a boost to Palestinians and the demoralized local Christian community.

Jews who had rarely if ever given the pontiff or his church a second thought were suddenly noticing the white-robed figure among them, and watching as he departed from the script and walked across Yad Vashem’s Hall of Remembrance to clasp the hands of six Holocaust survivors.

Muslims whose main point of reference for the Roman Catholic Church was its role as sponsor and inspiration of the brutality of the crusaders were now given a new image of the church to contemplate: a Christian religious leader humble or politic enough to sit in silent contemplation as a muezzin’s call to prayer interrupted his Mass in Palestinian-ruled Bethlehem’s Manger Square.

If the substance of the pope’s dozen speeches and homilies broke little new ground, that was hardly the point. More important was that he said it here, and for the first time he seized the attention of Jews and Muslims on their home turf.