Pope Benedict XVI's recent visit to the Holy Land was a very important opportunity to foster interfaith cooperation and peace. The Pope's five day trip to Israel has been heavily criticized as being plagued by missed opportunities. The German-born pontiff has been criticized for lacking emotion in his speech at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.
During an interfaith peace session at the Notre Dame pontifical Institute, the Pope sat back idly as Sheikh Tamimi launched an angry tirade against the State of Israel. On his way out Pope Benedict XVI shook the Sheikh's hand, a move that outraged many Israelis. Hoping to salvage the Pope's visit, Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein, Director of the Jerusalem based Elijah Interfaith Institute organized an interfaith song for peace in Nazareth.
The Elijah Interfaith Institute works to bring together the world's highest level leadership to engage in constructive dialog. The Dalai Lama recently described the organization as, “the deepest and most intimate group working in interfaith relations”. The organization works to promote constructive exchange between leaders, scholars, and communities worldwide.
Difficult media environment
During Pope John Paul II's trip to Israel in 2000, he was able to capture the hearts of the Israeli public and in just a few days significantly improve Jewish and Christian relations. In this respect, Pope Benedict XVI was less successful.
According to Rabbi Goshen-Gottstein, “The media set the stage for a difficult visit by being critical and highlighting his German background, prior to his arrival, figures such as Rabbi Lau found fault in ways that were both ungracious and unjustified”.
The Elijah Interfaith Institute, which helped organize an interfaith event during John Paul II's pilgrimage in 2000, presented the idea of a multi faith prayer to Vatican organizers as a way to counteract the negative media.
Vatican spokesman Fr. Lombardi commented, "The Rabbi generated a stroke of genius. No one could theologically object to a simple song for peace".
Rabbi Goshen-Gottstein led the interfaith song for peace along side Muslim, Christian, Druze and Jewish religious leaders. Rabbi Gottstein led the simple song, "Salam, Shalom, Lord Grant Us Peace". The pontiff took to his feet in a gesture of unity and held hands with the other religious leaders on stage. The Pope's spontaneous gesture of peace had a ripple effect through the audience. The entire meeting hall in Nazareth Basilica joined hands in prayer.
Rabbi Goshen-Gottstein told Ynet, "The symbolic gesture takes us one serious step further in interfaith relations." Gottstein added, "This deserves to be THE image that lasts for all of us to take from this visit.
"We seek to change people’s minds about a trip that many saw as doomed to failure, demonstrating that it was in fact imbued with a sense of hope. The outpouring of grateful responses to this initiative, from all around the world, underlines how desperate people have become, and how deeply they were touched by what happened. Their tears of joy suggest a glimmer of true hope for the future".