A trip this weekend by Pope Francis to Jordan and Israel is stirring controversy over matters large and small, even before the Argentine-born pontiff's plane lifts off from Rome.
Pope Francis, spiritual leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, heads to Jerusalem on Saturday, and while he insists this is a simple pilgrimage, the journey is already stirring controversy even before the Argentine-born pontiff's plane takes off from Rome. Critics and media observers wonder whether the pope will somehow "claim" control of the Jerusalem site known as the Cenacle, or "Upper Room," where Jesus is believed to have celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples. Will his visit to a particular Jordanian location touted as "the" spot where John the Baptist immersed Jesus constitute an endorsement of that place over a competing Israeli one? And, what's up with his selected traveling companions - a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim sheik? According to Francis, his journey is a pilgrimage and nothing more. "It will be a strictly religious trip," the Catholic News Agency reported May 21, quoting the pontiff at his weekly general audience. Francis said, "In first place I will meet my brother Bartholomew the First, as an homage for the 50th anniversary of the encounter between (then-pope) Paul VI and Athenagoras I." Francis continued, "Peter and Andrew will meet again and this is beautiful! The second reason for this trip is to pray for peace on this Land that suffers so much. I ask you to pray for this trip." This will be a first for Francis, the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, as pontiff, and it will also mark the first time a pope has brought Jewish and Muslim leaders with him on the trip. In this instance, the two guests are old friends from Argentina, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency news service reports: "Rabbi Abraham Skorka, former rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires, and Sheik Omar Abboud, a former secretary-general of the Islamic Center of Argentina." Both men are longtime friends of Francis from the days when the Catholic leader was known as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Rabbi Skorka and the then-Cardinal Bergoglio had a series of interfaith discussions that were transcribed for a 2013 English-language book, "On Heaven and Earth: Pope Francis on Faith, Family, and the Church in the Twenty-First Century." Speaking with the Times of Israel, Rabbi Skorka noted Francis' plans to lay a wreath at the grave of Zionist pioneer Theodore Herzl: "That is a meaningful act," the newspaper quoted Skorka as saying. "He understands the importance of the land of Israel and the state of Israel to the Jewish people." At the same time, Skorka said Francis "will try to be balanced," the website reported. Archbishop Guiseppe Lazzarotto, the pope's top diplomat in Israel, agreed: "The visit is absolutely not political," the apostolic nuncio told The Times of Israel during a visit to Mount Herzl. Before he visits Mount Herzl, Francis will make a stop at Bethany Beyond the Jordan, on the west bank of the Jordan River in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and wade into a biblical controversy - whether or not the pope actually steps in the water, The Washington Post reports. "Although it might not matter much to a half-million annual visitors who come to the river for sightseeing or a renewal of faith, it matters very much to tourism officials in Israel and Jordan, who maintain dueling baptism sites, one smack-dab across from the other, with the shallow, narrow, muddy stream serving as international boundary," the paper noted. (Israel also has a "registered" baptismal site for Christian pilgrims at Yardenit, where the water is much clearer, as this reporter has twice observed.) Another stopping point for the pope is also fraught with interfaith rivalries. The Upper Room in Jerusalem, also known as the Cenacle, is sacred to Jews as the site of King David's tomb, to Muslims for its 16th century mosque, and to Christians as the presumed location of Jesus' Last Supper with his disciples before his betrayal and crucifixion. Francis plans to say a Mass in the Upper Room, and that has Orthodox Jews upset, NBC News reported. "Under Jewish law, it is a big problem. Basically they (Christians) are taking over the place," said Rabbi Avraham Goldstein, who led a protest at the site. Not true, said Israel's ambassador to the Vatican. Zion Evrony, in a speech obtained on Wednesday and reported by Israel National News, citing the AFP news service, quashed the rumors: "Contrary to rumors in Israel, there is no intention to transfer to the Vatican sovereignty or ownership on the Tomb of David or the Cenacle," Evrony is quoted as saying.%3Cimg%20src%3D%22http%3A//beacon.deseretconnect.com/beacon.gif%3Fcid%3D172678%26pid%3D46%22%20/%3E