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March 27, 2000

Pope Won Israeli Hearts And Minds


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Filed at 11:41 a.m. ET

By Reuters

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - At last, Israeli Jews long divided by a common religion found a holy man to rally round.

The Pope.

``He seemed like a nice guy, a real human being,'' Haim Diamant, a computer programmer, said on Monday, a day after the Pontiff ended a triumphant week-long pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Before John Paul II's arrival, Diamant had told Reuters he had no interest in the leader of the world's one billion Roman Catholics. The Pope, he said, represented a Church that had persecuted Jews for centuries.

But the ailing Polish-born Pontiff won hearts and minds among secular Jews like Diamant and Orthodox rabbis as he walked slowly in the footsteps of Jesus, stopping along the way to ask forgiveness for past sins of Christians.

``He broke a psychological barrier that existed in all of us,'' said Rabbi Michael Melchior, a cabinet minister of the ruling One Israel alliance.

``He went to all the right places and said all the right things,'' echoed Avi Pazner, a former Israeli ambassador to Rome.

PSYCHOLOGICAL BARRIER BROKEN

In an emotional climax to the crowning pilgrimage of his 21-year papacy, the Pope visited Jerusalem's Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, to observe a Jewish tradition and say he was sorry.

The Pontiff placed a written plea for forgiveness in a crack of the wall, a shrine where for centuries Jewish faithful have crammed prayers and wishes into crevices in hopes that their words will be read by God.

``I don't think the Jewish people can ask for more,'' cabinet minister Haim Ramon said about the Pope's visit to the wall.

A Holocaust survivor who telephoned a popular radio talk show, said the Pontiff had shown good will from the moment he set foot in the Holy Land.

``After 2,000 years of exile in which the Church attacked, killed and banished us, at last the Pope himself came and asked for forgiveness,'' said the caller, who identified himself only as Didi.

But the Pope's visit to Israel's Yad Vashem memorial to the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust stirred mixed emotions.

The Israeli government expressed satisfaction with the papal address in the Hall of Remembrance in which the Pope deplored the ``terrible tragedy of the Shoah,'' the Hebrew word for Holocaust.

However, the Pontiff stopped short of atoning for what many Jews see as the sinful acts of Pope Pius XII, whom they accuse of turning a blind eye to the annihilation of European Jewry.

``It was a good speech, a nice speech -- very emotional -- but I wait for chapter number two,'' said Israeli Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, a Holocaust survivor.

A DIFFERENT KIND OF HOLY MAN

For Israelis, many of whom know little about Christian doctrine, the Pope was a different breed of cleric.

Most Jews in overwhelmingly secular Israel rarely go to synagogue and are more familiar with clergymen as traditional power brokers in coalition governments.

The Pope's New Testament theme of brotherhood, and a sermon on the Galilee mount where Jesus praised the meek, stood in stark contrast to the Old Testament toughness of rabbinical political kingpins.

The contrast was brought home to Israelis on Monday, a day after they had watched the frail, misty-eyed Pontiff turn and wave an emotional farewell from the door of an El Al Israeli Airlines plane taking him back to Rome.

They were confronted with the spectacle of an Orthodox rabbi in dark glasses who used a sermon to insult a political rival in the language of the Old Testament.

Attorney-General Elyakim Rubinstein ordered police to investigate Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, leader of the powerful Shas Orthodox Jewish party, for the sermon in which he had called left-wing politician Yossi Sarid ``worse than Pharoah.''

The contrast was not lost on many Israelis.

``There was the Pope on the mount talking about loving your fellow man and here we have this rabbi threatening a member of the government,'' a history teacher told her class in a high school in central Israel.



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