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Pope Ends Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

Aired March 26, 2000 - 11:55 a.m. ET


GENE RANDALL, CNN ANCHOR: Pope John Paul II is about to end his week-long pilgrimage to the Holy Land, as he prepares to depart Israel and Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv.

On the final day of his historic trip, the 79-year-old pontiff visited sites sacred to three great religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. The high point for Jews, of course, was his visit to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, where the pope prayed. He also visited the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest shrine in Islam, and celebrated mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher: the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and where he rose from the dead.

This has been an extraordinary week for the pope, and our Jerrold Kessel is in Jerusalem -- Jerrold.

JERROLD KESSEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is the 92nd trip that the -- Pope John Paul II has taken outside of Italy since he began his papacy just over two decades ago. This Holy Land pilgrimage was clearly even before it began designated the most sensitive political and religious trip of his pontificate.

But I would say that if a week ago there would be many in Israel who would, at this stage, as he's about to depart -- arrived in that helicopter, Israeli Air Force helicopter from Jerusalem here to the airport outside Tel Aviv to aboard an El Al aircraft, which will take him back to Rome -- there are many a week ago who would have said, "We'll breathe a sigh of relief when the pope leaves." I think there will be many today who he'll be saying, "What a pity he's leaving," because in many ways this pope has captivated the hearts of people in the Holy Land on all sides. And I think that's as much a testament as anything: that as he walked in the footsteps of Jesus, as he put it, in this pilgrimage, he needed to show that he could pass an ultimate test of diplomatic skills and moral authority. And he seems to have done that with flying colors, treading with enormous care to avoid giving either side, the Israelis or the Palestinians, the pretext to exploit his actions, and at the same time establishing a kind of moral standard, if you like, of harmony and reconciliation in the Holy Land, which he says people here in the Holy Land need to follow, and other pilgrims who will come in his wake will try to follow, if that is the standard that he has set.

And that is the legacy of this quite remarkable and what would have seemed at the outset a very daring pilgrimage by Pope John Paul II that he's leaving behind as he prepares to complete this final leg of the pilgrimage, and arrive for this farewell ceremony at Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv.

RANDALL: Jerrold, if there is one moment that Israelis will focus on long after this trip has ended, will it be the time the pope took to visit Yad Vashem?

KESSEL: Yes, it will be. There was that remarkable scene as he stood head bowed for many, many seconds in homage and silence, because he had said that was a place at the Holocaust memorial where words were not enough to express feelings. And he stood beneath the eternal flame that is -- that burns at that memorial to the 6 million Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis.

But he did not say what many had hoped he might or anticipated he might, that some kind of an apology for church silence, or at least address that problem. But therefore, I would say along with that very, very moving ceremony, which he participated in, and the moving tribute that he gave to the victims, today's event at the hallowed ground for Jews of the Western Wall, the last remnant of the biblical times temple, the pope stepped there to place -- to say a prayer, to say a psalm, and then to make a private personal prayers, as Jews have done through the centuries alongside that wall, and then to put his prayer into the crevices of the wall in the tradition of Jews over the centuries.

And what was contained in that prayer and in that plea for forgiveness will perhaps resound and resonate with Israelis and Jews more than ever. What he said is, "We're deeply saddened by the behavior of those in the course of history who have caused the children of God to suffer, and asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant."

That moving testament will be remembered by Israelis.

Now here, he's being greeted by Israel's -- Israel's president, Ezer Weizman, by Prime Minister Barak and his wife. And there will be the national anthems before the departure -- Gene.

RANDALL: Jerrold, would you say that most Israelis would at least say the pope has gone a long way toward bridging the historic rift between Christians and Jews?

KESSEL: Even before he came here, there was a feeling that this pope had -- was clearly the friendliest ever to sit on the -- in the Vatican. But he had -- he had established a new kind of relationship, a sea change in the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people, a troubled relationship (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in many ways over centuries, and that he had sent it in a new direction. And there was to some degree a feeling that perhaps he hadn't gone far enough. But the manner in which the pontiff has conducted himself, the commitment he has shown to this belief in reconciliation has won -- won over all too many Israelis.

One, the Israeli public security minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami -- not a man easily given to emotion -- said: "We fell in love with him. He is an extraordinary person full of goodwill, a man of heart, a man of justice." And when he went to the Western Wall today and said that prayer, stood there, there will be some Jews who will be a little troubled by the -- the giant gold cross that hangs from the pontiff's neck and on to his chest standing there in front of this great Jewish shrine, as they see it. And yet, the remark of the government minister who welcomed him there, Michael Melchior, was I think something that will reflect, too. He said: "Perhaps we do have a psychological problem with the Christian cross after all these centuries. But I think was important here today was not the cross; it's that the pope touched the wall" -- the Western Wall -- "and the wall touched him." And I think that was absolutely true.

There was that feeling as he stood there in front of those giant old stones that he was reaching back across history to try and create new bridges across history and across into the future.

A remarkable pilgrimage, a brilliantly conceived schedule, an agenda which was carefully calibrated between Palestinians and Israelis, and also between the pope and his relations with others in the church, and with the rest of Christianity. It has been a remarkably construed pilgrimage, starting back in Jordan where he said he was starting and following in the footsteps not only of Jesus but also of Moses, and then coming across the River Jordan, as the biblical prophet Moses never was allowed to do, according to the scriptures, and he himself coming in here, and in a sense, providing a promised land of his own, or a glimpse of that, for those who will follow him with his message of harmony and reconciliation in the Holy Land -- Gene.

RANDALL: Jerrold, since there have been predecessors to this pope who have not used the term Israel and -- and since the pope also met with Palestinians and talked to about a Palestinian state, could each side in the Israeli-Palestinian equation have reason for encouragement at what they've heard?

I think absolutely so. We have talked a lot about the way this will resonate with Israelis and with Jews. But for the Palestinians it has been as equally a historic moment as he spoke as movingly and emphatically as he did in that personal plea for the Palestinians' right to a homeland, and today in Jerusalem standing on a disputed spot between the two big religions in the Holy Land, Judaism and Islam, the -- what the Jews call the Temple Mount and what for Islam is the Haram as-Sharif, the noble sanctuary, the site of the two major mosques in Jerusalem from where Mohammed is believed -- the prophet Mohammed is believed to have ascended to heaven. And the pope there saying very fittingly, Jerusalem, everyone's rights have to be met in Jerusalem, it belongs to everyone.

And I think that is the kind of statement that Palestinians welcome, that Palestinians will cherish and that Palestinians will use politically. But if, as one rabbi said, he was remarkable in striking a very fine balance as he empathized with both rival parties, who are involved in a maze of struggles, the most pertinent of them Jerusalem, and he resonated with their causes, but he did so without alienating the other side. And that is this remarkable diplomatic skill that Pope John Paul II displayed throughout this pilgrimage -- Gene. RANDALL: Jerrold, you alluded to the large number of trips this pope has taken during his papacy, and certainly his returns to his native Poland have been high points. But it seems to me, and I think it has seemed to a lot of people, that this was really a high point for the pope: this trip celebrating the three great religions of the world, going to the Holy Land.

KESSEL: I think it has been -- he's made plain that for him this has been the crowning pilgrimage. He has made some dramatic pilgrimages to -- to Eastern Europe, to his homeland in Poland, across to Cuba, many times to Africa, and to India we will recall not long ago. But I believe this is something that he wanted to do back -- back perhaps 15 years ago, soon after he went on that memorable moment to a synagogue in Rome, went to the Auschwitz death camp, concentration camp in Poland, and has wanted to come here.

But it has been the problems of political conflict in the Middle East which has debarred (ph) that possibility. And now he's been able to come here. And one of the purposes, clearly the objective that the Vatican set for this mission was not just the personal pilgrimage -- although that was at the forefront and I think we should not underestimate that -- but also this attempt to create this greater harmony which can be set against the background of the efforts to promote a peace in the Middle East.

But it is true that we see these greater motives, and the pope clearly can rarely be a private person. But there were those moments of personal pilgrimage, and those, too, were perhaps among the most moving for viewers around the world seeing it through CNN and elsewhere. And here in the Middle East itself, in the Holy Land, of seeing the pope being able to commune with himself, to engage in personal prayer at various spots on the critical stations of the pilgrimage in Jesus' life, both in Bethlehem, where he was born, in Nazareth, the childhood place in where Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel, today in Jerusalem, very movingly in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where most Christians believe Jesus was crucified and entombed before his resurrection.

And it was dramatic that after the formal mass today, the high mass in the church of the Holy Sepulcher, this man who will be nearly 80, who will turn 80 in a couple of months from now, asked to be allowed to return to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, virtually on his own -- of course, he couldn't be entirely on his own -- but without the hordes of cameras and news men and support system behind him, went back to the Holy Sepulcher. And we don't know exactly what he did, but we believe, again, a private prayer and was given that opportunity for a private pair in that holiest of places in the Holy Land of Christianity.

He has looked for those moments, and he has been given them amidst this very grueling and very strenuous itinerary -- Gene.

RANDALL: A strenuous itinerary combined with frail health for this 79-year-old pontiff. I am told that at Yad Vashem he insisted on standing as he shook hands with survivors of the Holocaust. A lot of symbolism there. KESSEL: It was more even than standing. He stood remarkably. I think one of the things that has impressed people throughout this trip was the way he has been not just doggedly going on with a schedule, but keeping to every aspect of it, standing, walking along, and as you say, at Yad Vashem -- perhaps the most poignant moment of that very moving ceremony at the Holocaust memorial -- he didn't go, he didn't wait for six Holocaust survivors who were there on hand to greet -- to greet him. He didn't wait for them, as perhaps was befitting of his station, for them to come over to him. He rose from his chair, and he walked across that darkened hall in those very austere circumstances, walked across to the Holocaust survivors himself with the famed kind of slow, painful steps that he takes leaning on his cane or there on his staff, and embraced them there. And that was perhaps as poignant a moment as we've had during this whole very, very moving pilgrimage throughout the last week -- Gene.

RANDALL: And let me quote Prime Minister Barak that day at Yad Vashem. He said to the pope: "Your coming here today to the Tent of Remembrance at Yad Vashem is a climax of this historic journey of healing. Here, right now, time itself has come to a standstill. This very moment holds within it 2000 years of history, and the weight is almost too much to bear."

I'm told that Mr. Barak was very much taken with the pope's actions and his words that day at that memorial.

KESSEL: I think not only then and I say not only Mr. Barak himself, but many, many Israelis I think will be surprised at themselves at how much they have been taken by the pope and his actions and his gait and his stature and the conception which he's brought to this pilgrimage. It is no secret that most Israelis, and many Jews, are not all that aware of the church's teachings, of the church's attitudes. And they have been surprised at the depth of understanding and the depth of feeling that this pope has brought to that relationship, and the depth of conceptual understanding of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, and its historical links.

Well, that of course is something fairly new in church theology. It's less than 40 years ago that included in the Catholic Church's liturgy was a phrase "the perfidious Jews," the Jews who were held to have collectively been responsible for the death of Jesus. Well, that -- since then, there has been a sea change in relationship.

I wouldn't overstate perhaps that everything is now absolutely tip-top in this relationship. But this visit has contributed enormously to setting it in that new direction that Pope John Paul has worked for so arduously in the last 20 years of his papacy.

RANDALL: You know, I'm looking at this video. It's simply a remarkable picture. A leader of the Roman Catholic Church, 1 billion Catholics in the world, Roman Catholics, flanked by the Israeli President Ezer Weizman and the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Who could have foreseen this picture 20 years ago, 10 years ago?

KESSEL: More than that, you remarked about the previous papal visit to the Holy Land in 1964. Now, the national anthems. When the previous pope, Paul VI, came here in 1964 to the Holy Land, he literally slipped in the back door to Israel. There was a special border post opened up, because he didn't want to come through Jerusalem. He spent less than a day here. He visited only the Christian holy sites of pilgrimage, and never throughout those visits actually mentioned the name Israel. And this visit could not have been more different. This is an absolute stamp of authority on this sometimes, and sometimes still troubled formal relationship between the Vatican and the Jewish state.

But I think there is no going back now. Whatever -- if it's only this particular pope who's established this new relationship, it will be difficult to see it going back to anything of the troubled past that there has been in this relationship. But at the same time, there is the possibility. There are difficult issues that have still not been resolved, and the critical one being that of Jerusalem.

And I think it's interesting that what we saw today, and also last night, when the pope spoke very emphatically to the other, to the members of the Christian churches in Jerusalem, and he said something which I think resonates across what we've been saying about his putting a moral stamp of authority, of harmony and reconciliation on Christianity's place here. There are precious few Christians who live in the Holy Land, less than 5 percent altogether. But the pope was saying, he seems to be saying that this is the Christian message that should be read by the people of the Holy Land.

And last night, he berated the Christian community, the Christian leadership in the Holy Land, saying that by bickering among each other they were not able to play the role that Christianity could perhaps play in trying to bring about a solution for the dispute in Jerusalem. Now, that's going to be a very important point as the battle for Jerusalem, if one could put it that way, the diplomatic and political battle between Israelis and Palestinians, between Muslims and Jews plays out. If there is now a Christian voice into that mix, well, it's a new -- a new element in that difficult equation.

RANDALL: Once again, the scene is Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv in Israel. Pope John Paul II about to depart on this El Al jetliner after a one-week visit, one-week pilgrimage to the Holy Land, a pilgrimage he said he'd been thinking about for a long time. He is flanked by the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, and Israel's president, Ezer Weizman.

On the last day of his trip, he visited sites very sacred to the world's three great religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. He celebrated mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The pope now getting ready to board his flight.

And we remind you that...

KESSEL: Gene, I think that...

RANDALL: ... "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" from Moscow is coming up just after our coverage of the pope ends.

Jerrold, go ahead.

KESSEL: Gene, I just wanted to say that we've been talking a lot about the pope attempting to put his mark of reconciliation on the players and on the situation in this troubled political situation, and the delicate political tightrope which he's had to walk between particularly the Israeli and Palestinian claims and counterclaims over Jerusalem. And he's had to listen to those counterclaims and claims and counterclaims virtually from the moment he arrived, when he was greeted by then President Ezer Weizman, who mentioned very emphatically Jews' aspirations and yearnings for Jerusalem going back -- and now the pope blessing the children who have brought him this farewell gift.

And then he heard from the Palestinians today again in the -- in the Haram as-Sharif, near the mosques where the Jerusalem mufti said that he had to please work for the Palestinian rights. He said: "Muslim rights. This is a place that has been dear to Muslims for 1,500 years and would remain so ever that link."

And throughout this visit, the pope has listened to those and perhaps tolerated them and never tried really to bridge them other than by setting that stamp of authority. But it's interesting that both sides right up until the end are laying their claims, sometimes in subtle and sometimes in less subtle ways.

The name of the aircraft, the Israeli El Al aircraft which will be taking the pope back to Rome is Jerusalem. The pope arrived here -- arrived in Jordan originally on an Alitalia, Italian airliner. He flew from Amman in Jordan to here in Tel Aviv on a Royal Jordanian aircraft. And now the third leg taking him home, he will flying on the Israeli airliner. And as I say, the airliner -- and I daresay not by accident -- is named Jerusalem -- Gene.

RANDALL: Jerrold, there was a lot of question after the pope left Cuba whether the Cuban people would be better off for his visit. Will we be able to tell in a short space of time whether this region, this troubled region is better off for his visit?

KESSEL: A difficult -- I suppose a difficult thing to say, because, you know, the Vatican measures things in not so much in days or weeks or months, but in longer times than that, almost centuries. And I daresay the Vatican will say, this has been successful, because we've established a new tone, or the pope has at least, if not established, laid down his marker of a moral marker of the principles of harmony and reconciliation that ought to dominate in the Holy Land.

It will be difficult for them to ignore the memories that resonate from this visit, from this pilgrimage, if on the Israeli- Jewish church level, if on the level of the political message, if you will, that the pope delivered.

Whether it will have an immediate impact on the peace process as it's unfolding, one rather doubts. But there is that message, and I daresay it will be impossible for it to be ignored into the future. And it has been quite a remarkable experience of watching this almost 80-year-old man, who's undertaken an itinerary that was grueling, I think, for anybody, let alone for a man of his age and with his ailments. Let's not forget he still suffers from that assassination attempt on him in 1981, and a host of ailments. He's gone through every item on the schedule, and even, as I say, today, adding that particular element of the return for that private moment in the church of the Holy Sepulcher.

It will be very difficult for people to forget the impact of this visit -- Gene.

RANDALL: Jerrold, thanks very much. It has been said by tyrants that the Vatican has no armies, and that is true. But this remarkable leader of the Roman Catholic Church has a message: It is a message of peace. It is one that he spoke during this historic visit to the Middle East, this troubled land -- 79-year-old Pope John Paul II about to leave Israel en route back to Rome.

Stay with us now as we track the other big story this day, the Russian presidential election. Wolf Blitzer is in Moscow for a special edition of "LATE EDITION."

And here as we watch the pope's final few steps in Israel. It has been an ambitious schedule he has kept. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) he clearly indicated, fulfilled a dream of his.

And now we go to Moscow for Wolf Blitzer and "LATE EDITION." I'm Gene Randall in Washington.



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