Shortly after Pope Benedict XVI's election, a Vatican Cardinal close to the pontiff predicted a Holy Land pilgrimage would be the first or second trip on the new papal itinerary. "It will happen soon," the Cardinal told me privately. "He very badly wants to go."
Nearly four years and 10 trips later, the visit was finally confirmed last month, even though some prickly bilateral issues between the Holy See and the Israeli government remained unresolved. But as Israel's assault on Gaza reaches the two-week mark, Vatican diplomats now say the long anticipated voyage (with planned stops in Israel, the West Bank and Jordan) is increasingly at risk of being cancelled. (See pictures of Benedict XVI's first year.)
Following the first rounds of air strikes on Hamas targets, chief Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi had cautioned that it was "premature" to say whether the conflict would scuttle the trip. But Church insiders now acknowledge that hopes for the planned visit are growing dimmer as the conflict deepens with Israel's all-out air and ground assault on Gaza growing bloodier. "At the beginning, you could imagine [the war] not forcing the Pope to change his plans," says one well-placed Vatican insider, who often travels to the region. "But it's clear now that everything would have to be reconsidered for [the trip] to happen." (See pictures from the Pope's 2007 visit to America.)
The Palestinian death toll has topped 700, according to U.N. and other sources in Gaza, while 11 Israelis have been killed, eight of them soldiers. Meanwhile, worldwide calls for a cease-fire - including repeated pleas from Benedict himself - have been for naught. On Thursday, during his annual address to the international diplomatic corps assigned to the Holy See, the Pope said that "military options are no solution and that violence, wherever it comes from and whatever form it takes, must be firmly condemned." The Vatican has long called for a negotiated settlement, and wants Israel and the United States to engage other regional players, including Syria and Iran, to find what the Pope on Thursday called a "global approach" to finding a lasting Middle East peace.
Complicating matters for the planned papal trip was a remark by Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Vatican's Office for Justice and Peace, who likened the situation in Gaza to a "concentration camp." Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman responded bluntly on Thursday. "We are astounded to hear from a spiritual dignitary words that are so far removed from truth and dignity," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor was quoted as telling Reuters. "The vocabulary of Hamas propaganda, coming from a member of the College of Cardinals, is a shocking and disappointing phenomenon."
The issue of the Holocaust had already been a sticking point during negotiations for a possible papal visit. Church officials have demanded Israel remove a photograph caption at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial that criticizes Pope Pius XII's conduct during World War II. Jewish leaders and some historians argue that Pius failed to use his moral power to denounce the atrocities. Catholic leaders are pushing for Pius to be made a saint of the Church, saying he was one of the 20th century's great popes, and that he did what was possible during Nazi occupation. Benedict has given mixed signals as to whether he will forge ahead with the cause for beatification, the last step before sainthood.
The debate over these historical matters may become moot if the current conflict continues, and the trip to Israel gets shelved. Less politically oriented than his immediate predecessor, Pope John Paul II, Benedict finds his comfort zone when reflecting on Church history and digging into Christian theology. Having already written a best-selling scholarly treatise on Jesus during his papacy, Benedict had envisioned his trip to the holy sites in the Middle East as above all a pilgrimage to the birthplace of his faith. Such was the case in 1964 when Pope Paul VI visited holy sites on the first papal visit to Israel, long before the Vatican and the Jewish State had established diplomatic relations. When John Paul II went in 2000 it was a mix of pilgrimage and politics, with an inevitable emphasis on inter-religious relations.
If the violence does end soon enough, and the papal trip can be salvaged, Benedict's arrival in the region would inevitably be much more political than he may have initially hoped. "He wanted to make a voyage of faith. But the context has changed," says the Vatican source. "Now the focus would be on peace. It could give him the chance to leave a legacy there." First, though, he must pray for the chance to even make such a complicated pilgrimage, as the Middle East's collision of faith and politics grows bloodier by the day.