Pope: Jerusalem status issues could impede Mideast peace

ROME — Pope John Paul II last weekend rejoiced in the progress of Middle East peace, but warned that differences over the status of Jerusalem could jeopardize the peace process.

The pontiff also condemned anti-Semitism and deplored the longstanding tensions between Christians and Jews.

In his annual State of the World address, the pope reiterated the Vatican position that Jerusalem should be a unique, multireligious entity.

However, last month, Leah Rabin, the widow of slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, had an audience with the pope, after which she said the pope told her that he considered Jerusalem "the capital of Israel and as the capital of three faiths."

On Saturday, the pope addressed ambassadors and representatives — from more than 160 countries — who were gathered in the Vatican's ornate Sala Reggia.

Among those who attended were the ambassador from Israel and, for the first time, a Palestinian representative.

"Today, we cannot but rejoice to see here, for the first time, the representative of the Palestinian people," the pope said, noting that the Vatican had enjoyed diplomatic relations with Israel for more than a year.

"We had been looking forward to this happy state of affairs," he said, "because it is the eloquent sign that the Middle East has resolutely taken the path of peace."

Of Jerusalem, the pope said, "The religious and universal dimension of the holy city demands a commitment on the part of the whole international community, in order to ensure that the city preserves its uniqueness and retains its living character."

The pope said holy places that are important to the three monotheistic religions would lose "much of their significance if they were not permanently surrounded by active communities of Jews, Christians and Muslims."

Saying that Christianity had a "particularly intimate relationship" with Judaism, the pope called for religious tolerance among all faiths, criticized the "hatreds, persecutions and all the manifestations of anti-Semitism directed against Jews in every time and by anyone."

The pope made the remarks during his regular noontime address from his window at the Vatican overlooking St. Peter's Square.

The "memory of tensions which so many times have marked the relationship between Christians and Jews" gave rise to "great pain," he said, adding that Christians should respect the "spiritual riches" of other faiths in order to build universal peace and brotherhood.

His talk centered on the Nostra Aetate document issued in the 1960s by the Second Vatican Council.

The document dealt with relations between Christianity and other faiths, and was a landmark in Jewish-Catholic relations, overturning the traditional Catholic teaching that the Jews had killed Jesus and opening the way for Jewish-Catholic dialogue after nearly 2,000 years of mistrust.