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Pope To Visit Holocaust Memorial

March 23, 2000

JERUSALEM (AP) _ It is a stop nearly every state visitor to Israel makes, a virtual moral requirement of any itinerary. Yet never will the symbolism be so great as when Pope John Paul II sets foot on the soil of Yad Vashem.

For Israelis, the pontiff’s scheduled visit today to the famed Holocaust memorial should be the emotional high point of his weeklong trip. Many are hoping he’ll do something a pope has never done before: make a direct apology for the Catholic Church’s public silence during the Holocaust.

Some hope he’ll go even further and criticize Pope Pius XII, the wartime pontiff whom many Jews accuse of doing little while the Nazis exterminated their brethren. But students of the Vatican say that is highly unlikely.

The Vatican has said Pius’ diplomatic silence during World War II actually helped save thousands of Jewish lives. He is being considered for beatification, to the dismay of many in Israel.

Meir Gorsky, a professor of dentistry who lives near Tel Aviv, says he is sure the pope will say something about the church’s role during the Holocaust, and that ``it will be great.″

Gorsky will be there to hear it firsthand. The pope, a dear childhood friend of Gorsky’s late father, Leon Goldberger, has made a special request that Gorsky come and meet him.

``I’m really looking forward to meeting him,″ Gorsky said. ``He is nice, gentle, friendly. And he didn’t have to do this. He is really sure that he loves Jewish people.″

Gorsky said his father and the pontiff, then simply Karol Wojtyla, were soccer buddies in Wadowice, Poland, each playing goalkeeper for opposing teams. Karol would often have Sabbath dinner at his Jewish friend’s home, he said.

When his father visited the pope at the Vatican many years later, Gorsky said, the pope looked at the broadly built man and said, ``I can see why you were a good goalkeeper.″ The pontiff also told Goldberger not to call him ``Your Holiness″ _ it was too formal.

Gorsky, 54, said his father also played the piano as a youngster _ and the pope sang along.

Along with Gorsky, about 20 other friends from Wadowice are expected to reunite with the pontiff today, a day that is as symbolically important for Israel as Wednesday was for the Palestinians.

During his only day in Jewish west Jerusalem, the pontiff will meet President Ezer Weizman and also Israel’s chief rabbis. Some, like Rabbi David Rosen of the Anti-Defamation League, see the meeting with Weizman as the most important event because it would be ``a recognition of the transformation of the Catholic Church’s attitude toward the Jewish people in the land of Israel.″

During the last papal visit in 1964, Pope Paul VI never ventured into west Jerusalem and never publicly uttered Israel’s name.

The pope visits only one Christian site today: the room revered as the site where the Last Supper took place.

On Wednesday, the pope visited the cradle of Christianity, celebrating Mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square.

But as expected, the day was a potent mix of prayers and politics. John Paul gave a forceful speech in the presence of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, during which he recognized the Palestinians’ ``legitimate aspirations″ and their ``natural right to a homeland.″

The Palestinians presented him with a golden bowl of soil, to which the pontiff briefly touched to his lips.

The pope’s spokesman parried suggestions that he was endorsing a Palestinian state, saying such a state has not yet been proclaimed and that the Vatican would consider the issue when it happened.

Later in the day, John Paul showed sympathy with Palestinian refugees from the 1948 Mideast war, visiting the Dheisheh camp near Bethlehem. The visit was a peaceful one, and especially satisfying for Arafat, who beamed alongside the pope as he spoke. But an hour after the pontiff left, violence broke out.

Hundreds of Palestinians hurled stones at baton-wielding Palestinian police _ a show of dissatisfaction with Palestinian leadership and the slow pace of peace talks with the Israelis. In a battle that lasted for about half an hour, police pushed the protesters back, but then retreated under a hail of rocks. Some minor injuries were reported.


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