Sunday, April 26, 2009

Israel Shin Bet: 'Pope mobile' not good enough to protect pontiff

By Barak Ravid, Haaretz Correspondent

The Shin Bet security service does not want Pope Benedict XVI to use his so-called pope mobile in Nazareth next month, saying it may not be enough against any attack by radical Islamic groups. Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov will discuss the issue at Sunday's cabinet meeting.

The Holy See told the Israeli government that the pope wants to get as close as possible to his followers, so the Vatican hopes the pope will use the vehicle.

But the Shin Bet opposes this, citing pamphlets in Arab towns in the north calling for demonstrations during the visit. Other pamphlets by radical Islamists allegedly call for physical attacks on the pope. The Vatican said it understood the security concerns and wanted to find a solution.

The pontiff is due to arrive in Israel on May 11 for a four-day stay, which will include visits to the Palestinian Authority and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

He will visit Christian sites in Jerusalem and Nazareth, as well as Yad Vashem. The pope is also set to hold meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, who will be his official host.

Another factor raising concerns is the timing. It falls on May 14 - Nakba Day, when Palestinians mourn the events of 1948. The Shin Bet expects riots in the West Bank and over the Green Line.

The visit is only two weeks away, but several issues appear unresolved, notably security and financial arrangements. The Finance Ministry has only released 20 percent of its budget of NIS 43 million to other ministries.

The renovation of two Christian sites is not yet complete, including the church in the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem. Goats are currently kept in that area, which would prevent thousands of pilgrims from taking part in a mass.

The Tourism Ministry hopes to use the visit to promote pilgrimages to Israel, something Misezhnikov will stress to the cabinet ministers.

The previous pope, John Paul II, visited Israel in 2000. He was the pontiff to establish diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, in 1994.

The Polish-born pontiff was also the first pope to visit a synagogue, in Rome in 1986.