JERUSALEM (FIDES/ -- In preparation for the visit by Pope John Paul II to the Holy Land, the Fides news agency interviewed Father David Jaeger, OFM-- one of the people most knowledgeable about the Church in the Holy Land and the relations between Christians and Jews.

Father Jaeger, a Jewish convert, is a member of the Holy See Delegation to the bilateral Commission with Israel. He was among those who worked on the Holy See/Israel agreement, and among the first to comment on the basic agreement with the Palestinian Authority. The Franciscan priest now teaches at the Pontifical Antonianum College in Rome.

The following is the text of the Fides interview:

FIDES: Father Jaeger what is the attitude towards the Holy Father's imminent visit?

JAEGER: The Jews in Jerusalem are showing great interest and I would say that the atmosphere is decidedly positive. Although the Pope has underlined that the visit is part of his spiritual "jubilee
pilgrimage," people here regard it as a visit to their country and are preparing to give him a warm welcome. They are curious to know more about the Catholic Church and its faith. I have noticed that for many journalists and ordinary people here, the Catholic faith is almost a foreign world, unknown and rather fascinating. 

The government, for its part has made the visit a national priority. Prime Minister Ehud Barak decided to take personal responsibility for organization, asking his nearest minister, Hon. Haim Ramon to devote himself completely to the project. Even though it is not a state visit in the strict sense, Israel has spared neither efforts nor resources.

Of course on the margins of social life there are groups with different views. Orthodox Jewish leaders are diffident about opening to other believers, Catholics in particular. They are convinced they must protect their religion and their believers from Christianity's obvious attraction. They are troubled by an imaginary threat of proselytism.

FIDES: Are these the same groups who worry about spreading atheism in Israel?

JAEGER: Atheism is not a problem for the Jewish religion. For Orthodox Jews what counts is to keep the precepts of the Law. The majority of Jews in Israel are secular not religious, not practicing, but certainly not atheist. Zionism, the national Jewish movement, is completely secular, not religious. Its goal has always been to free the Jewish people from the yoke of other nations by creating the state of Israel; but also to liberate the people from the yoke of religious precepts, theocracy.

In the last few years a theocratic minority has gained influence and begun to fight the secular state. There is a sort of battle of culture between secular Jews and religious Jews trying to spread their influence to more areas. We Christians hope for a victory of the seculars: a state is a state of freedom to the extent that it is secular. The agreement reached between the Holy See and Israel has as its first article, religious freedom, as also the UN Charter and Israel's own declaration of independence. 

The Pope's pilgrimage is spiritual but are there any political aspects? The Church does not engage in politics. But, it is true that the Church of the Word Incarnate walks in history and therefore inevitably also in geopolitics. It is enough to look at the marked difference between this visit and Pope Paul VI's visit to the Holy Land in 1964. Paul VI visited Israel (as well as Jordan). But in those days there were no diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel. Israeli President Salman Shazar had to go to Megiddo to meet the Pope at least in an unofficial way. Israel felt somewhat humiliated by the low-key tone of the visit; the Pope appeared unwilling to recognize its existence. Since 1994 there are diplomatic relations, two agreements signed, others in preparation to regulate various aspects of these relations.

FIDES: But has all this improved relations between the Catholic Church and the Jews? Recently many Jews have complained that the Pope has not said enough about Christian sins against the Jewish people.

JAEGER: The fact that the Pope will also visit the Yad Vashem holocaust museum would appear to me a significant gesture. But it should be said that in Israel almost nothing is known about the progress made in Catholic/Jewish relations since Vatican II. In the next talks between Israel and the Holy See we will discuss precisely how to make these achievements known to the Jewish people. This will call for instruction. 

At Tel Aviv University a few months ago I mentioned the changes in relations with the Jews brought about by Vatican II. One of the teachers, a woman, remarked: "How wonderful! What a surprise! What good news; it is as if the Messiah has come!" The Council documents were written thirty years ago, and this university teacher, a scholar, was completely unaware of their existence!

The state is partly responsible for this lack of information. The 1993 agreement between the Holy See and Israel was only made public in 1999. A second agreement, regarding the juridical status of the Catholic Church in Israel, ratified in February 1999, has yet to be published officially. We intend to request a revision of the way in which Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church are presented in Israel in school curricula and in official speeches, and that the people of Israel are duly informed of the process made in Catholic/Jewish relations. Since Vatican II the Church has revised its way of referring to the Jews in its liturgy, catechesis and theology; now it is the turn of the Jews to do the same regarding Christians.

FIDES: Ehud Olmert, mayor of Jerusalem, has said the Pope should not question the state of Israel as Israel's "eternal capital" 

JAEGER:I am against this fetishism of referring to capitals as "eternal." Capital cities are historical--political but not eternal. God alone is eternal. Moreover, the state of Israel has promised to find a fair and negotiated solution to the question. This is also the position of the Holy See. The question of Jerusalem must be settled not unilaterally, but on the international level. The territorial future of Jerusalem and the city's political destiny can be decided by Israel and Palestinians together. In fact at Oslo, Israel committed itself to finding a negotiated solution for Jerusalem.

As far as the Church in concerned, whatever its political future, the city must be shared, not divided. The Church also asks for guarantees at the international level, in keeping with UN principles, such as the safeguarding of the city's religious and cultural heritage; the status quo of the holy places; access to holy places for all believers. United Nations resolution 181 (1947) stated the same objectives, in view of making the territory international. However this has since appeared impracticable.

The same finalities can find a non territorial solution, of common accord between Israel and Palestinians on the one hand and the international community on the other. The Palestinians have already endorsed this view, and this is encouraging. There is nothing to stop Israel from doing the same. Jews and Palestinians of goodwill want a Jerusalem which is shared not divided, in which perhaps West Jerusalem could be the Jewish capital, East Jerusalem the capital of Palestine. In fact although Israel has made Jerusalem its capital, it is also committed to finding a negotiated solution for the city: the only answer is a shared capital.

FIDES: What do you hope the Pope's visit will achieve?

JAEGER: Speaking on Israeli television a few days ago I said that the Pope calls the peoples of this Holy Land to lift up their eyes, to free themselves of their attachment to their own little things, securities, cunning tactics, possessions. The Pope calls for unity among the peoples of the Holy Land, counting on the common values of these children of Abraham. We must work with, not against, one another.

FIDES: What steps must be taken to guarantee peace?

JAEGER: Politics must remain secular. To mix politics with religion is deleterious for this area. All sides must work for secular states of Israel and of Palestine. This will guarantee peace, rights for all citizens including women, respect for minorities. It will also guarantee the freedom of the Church in the Middle East.

In the Middle East too little is said about man, still less about women, and almost too much about God. For the survival of Middle Eastern society, and of Christians in the region, states must be secular. Politics in the Muslim and Israeli societies at the moment are a struggle between secular and theocratic forces. It is hoped that the secular moves will win. The majority of the people in Israel want religion and state to be separate. The very fact that the Papal Visit is taking place, is an indication that the fundamentalist and theocratic currents are not so popular. The cordial atmosphere regarding the Pope's arrival, in Israel and in Palestine, shows that these societies are secular and pluralist.

FIDES: Is there competition between Palestine and Israel regarding hospitality for the Pope?

JAEGER: The Pope's visit to the Holy Land includes Palestine which at the moment has considerable autonomous space. The fact that the Pope will be received by the Palestinian Authorities is an indication of the Pontiff's respect for these people and their suffering. The Holy See has always had at heart the vicissitudes of the Palestinian people, supporting their rightful aspiration to live side by side with their Jewish neighbors in freedom and security.

The nation of Palestine is in transition from a state of autonomous territories to total independence. The road is not finished but in the coming months a significant peace pact should be reached. In the Holy Land the winning card is co-existence.