To mark the turn of the century, Pope John Paul II made a historic visit to the Middle East. In Israel he paid homage to the victims of the Holocaust by going to Yad Vashem and also visited the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. At the time, these gestures enraged many Muslim leaders.
The Pope also met with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Ikrime Sabri, Imam of the Al-Asqa mosque and the highest religious authority in Palestinian Islam. On the eve of the Pope’s visit to the Al-Asqa mosque, the Grand Mufti gave an extensive interview to the Italian newspaper La Republica, on March 24, 2000. The title of the article was "Too many lies about the Holocaust, [Pope] Wojtyla free us from the Jews."
When asked his thoughts on the Pope’s visit to Yad Vashem he answered: "Whether I approved of it or not, he would have gone anyway. The Jews have found a formidable way to gather solidarity from the world… Well, the Crusades lasted two hundred years, not five years like World War II, and many more Muslims than Jews were killed under Nazism. But nobody talks about the Crusades or compensation for us." The mufti also said, "Six million Jews dead? No way, they were much fewer. Let’s stop with this fairytale..."
The mufti was also asked if the Pope would be allowed to pray in the Al-Aqsa mosque and explained, "It would not be a good idea … such a gesture could be wrongfully interpreted by Christians in the future..." In the interview he explained, "I will remind him [the Pope] that according to Allah’s will, the holy Muslim places belong to us only."
In February 2000, the Pope also went to Egypt. His itinerary included a meeting with Sunni Islam’s most prominent religious figure the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Mohammad Sayyed Tantawi. In the past Tantawi has made statements in support of suicide bombings, killing Jews, as well as more recently support for jihad against U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. During a press conference in Egypt, in what could be implied as a veiled reaction to such sentiment, the Pope stated, "To do harm, to promote violence in the name of religion is a terrible contradiction and a great offense."
In May 2001, the Pope also went to Damascus and was greeted by Bashar Assad. The Syrian leader’s welcome to the Pope was an antisemitic diatribe: "They [the Jewish people] try to kill the principle of religions with the same mentality that they betrayed Jesus Christ and the same way they tried to betray and kill the prophet Mohammad." His Syrian itinerary included a visit to the historic Al-Umawi mosque.
From Mecca, Saudi Sheikh Adnan Ahmad Siyami responded to the Pope’s visit to Syria and his call for peace between religions: "The Pope's recent visit to Syria, to the Al-Umawi mosque is, without a doubt, another manifestation of that call. The call by [the Pope] - may Allah punish him as he deserves - to the people of the [different] religions … is nothing more than an audacious call for the unification of religions… This Pope, the head of the Catholic Church, and those behind him … are the descendants of the Spanish inquisitors who tortured the Muslims most abominably… They are the descendants of those who led the Crusades to the Islamic East, in which thousands of Muslims were killed... They are the perpetrators of the massacres in Bosnia-Herzegovina… in Kosovo, in Indonesia, and in Chechnya… Can we expect compassion from these murderous wolves?"
The Saudi sheikh added, "There can be neither an agreement nor a meeting point between the people of Islam and the Jewish and Christian People of the Book… How can we allow the Catholic Pope's talk of a need to find meeting points and agreement between Islam and Christianity… Is it conceivable that there should be agreement and a meeting point with those who fabricate terrible falsehoods about Allah … claiming that Jesus, peace be upon him, is his son?!…"
Many Islamist websites have eulogized the Pope with messages critical of Arab satellite television for highlighting John Paul II's call for peace and dialogue between all religions.
Next week’s column will discuss the challenges the next Pope will face in regards to the Muslim world.Steven Stalinsky is Executive Director of The Middle East Media Research Institute