Published April 02, 2005
JERUSALEM – In the Holy Land where Jesus walked, Jews, Muslims and Christians paid homage Saturday to Pope John Paul II's (search) tireless efforts to embrace people of different faiths.
Though his record was not without controversy, the pope used his frequent homilies and travels to pursue religious reconciliation. His visits to a synagogue in Rome (search) and a mosque in Damascus, Syria, were the first by a pontiff to Jewish and Muslim houses of worship.
John Paul frequently called for a peaceful end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and during the recent 4 1/2 years of fighting, urged leaders on both sides to marshal the courage to find peace.
"He wanted peace for everyone," said Mohammad Ahmed, 22, a Palestinian Muslim computer science student who lives in Jerusalem's Old City (search). "He wanted people of different religions to be like brothers, not like Jews and Muslims have been."
When the pope was in the Holy Land in March 2000, he urged Muslims and Jews to coexist peacefully in this lifetime, Ahmed recalled. "He's right, there's only one chance."
Representatives from both sides of the conflict remembered the pope fondly.
Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres said the pope "embodied the best that is within all mankind as well as the commonness of humanity. ... His actions and statements transformed relations between the Catholic and Jewish faiths, and made a fundamental impact on the struggle against anti-Semitism."
"We will miss him as a distinguished religious figure, who devoted his life to defending the values of peace, freedom and equality," Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said.
About 150 worshippers, most of them Palestinians, joined by a few pilgrims, gathered at the Church of the Nativity in Jesus' birthplace, the West Bank town of Bethlehem, to celebrate a special mass for John Paul, hours before he died.
The Rev. Amjad Sabbara recalled the pope's support for a new housing development for parishioners. "He always kept Bethlehem in his heart," he said.
Sister Mira Kasabreh, a young nun from Beit Jalla near Bethlehem, said, "We feel a kind of sadness, but at the same time, we know that God is with our pope."
At the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, which marks the place where tradition holds Jesus was crucified, people from the world over praised John Paul's contributions to religious tolerance and coexistence.
"He's been loved by so many and helpful to so many," said pilgrim Omer Jackson, preacher of the Christian Extended Hand church in Los Angeles. "I hope his successor will be as good a man."
John Paul, who grew up in a heavily Jewish town in Poland, often condemned anti-Jewish prejudice as sinful. In 1986, he made papal history with a visit to Rome's main synagogue. He established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1993, and in 2000 became the first pontiff to visit Israel in 36 years, praying at Judaism's holiest site, the Western Wall.
Israel's chief rabbis had a first Vatican audience just last year.
Yossi Beilin, a left-wing Israeli lawmaker, was closely involved in the negotiations that led to the establishment of diplomatic ties between Israel and the Vatican.
"I think he was very, very courageous in his moves toward Israel, both in the establishment of diplomatic ties, in his statements on Jews, and in his 2000 visit," said Beilin, who was deputy foreign minister at the time.
"The fact that he was ready to establish diplomatic ties before a final status agreement (between Israel and the Palestinians) was reached confounded all the experts' expectations," he said.
Israel's chief rabbis were not available for comment because of the Jewish Sabbath.
Still, there were sore points between Israel and the Vatican, the papacy of Pius XII among them. Although John Paul expressed remorse for the failure of some Christians to protect Jews during World War II, he beatified wartime pontiff Pius XII, who some Jews say didn't act forcefully enough against the Holocaust.
A Vatican document asserting the primacy of the Roman Catholic faith also strained relations.
So, too, did the pope's assertion that Israel created a new "obstacle" to peace by building a barrier to separate it from the West Bank. Israel says it needs the barrier to keep out Palestinian attackers. Palestinians say the barrier, which incorporates about 8 percent of the West Bank on the "Israeli" side, is a land grab.
Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser, a Catholic who met with the pope on various occasions, recalled the pontiff saying, "We need bridges, not walls."
The most-traveled pope of all times visited many Muslim countries, and, with an unprecedented papal visit to the Omayyad mosque in Syria in 2001, earned respect for his efforts at dialogue with Islam.
During his millennium year visit to the Holy Land, John Paul kissed Palestinian soil and held hands with the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, in an affirmation of the Palestinians' right to a homeland.
The Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad also expressed their sorrow.
"We remember the statements of His Holiness the pope on the rights of the Palestinians, and we hope that the Vatican leadership will stick to his position against the occupation," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zohari said.