The Pontiff considered his trip to Georgia of great importance, and therefore was willing to subject himself to the punishing rhythm of travel. He believes it has been a unique opportunity for an eventual reconciliation with the Orthodox in Moscow. The trip from Rome to New Delhi was a seven-hour flight, and from Delhi to Tiflis, an additional five-and-a-half, with the accompanying implications in terms of weather and schedules.
Without a doubt, John Paul II is indomitable. He never stops making plans, especially initiatives that will bring all Christians closer to union during the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000.
According to professor Carrado Manni, the Pope's anesthetist for six operations, it is normal that the Pope shows signs of exhaustion, given the changes in temperature and schedule. "Like others, I have also noticed his tiredness, but it is difficult to control a character like the Pope's. Independently of the physical effort and his health, the Pope wants to carry out with determination what he believes is right and useful for the good of the Church," professor Manni explained.
John Paul II returned to the Vatican Tuesday night, after his first visit to Georgia, which undoubtedly will mark a decisive step forward in the dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox.
Indeed, during his stay in this country of the Caucasus, the Pontiff and Orthodox Patriarch Ilja II, signed a joint appeal for peace in the world, with special emphasis on the conflicts in the Caucasus. Since its proclamation of independence in 1991, Georgia has been in a state of civil war, because of ethnic conflicts in the provinces of southern Osetia and Abjacia. Moreover, it neighbors with Chechenia, where Russian troops are engaged in a serious military offensive.
The Holy Father considered this meeting with the Georgian Orthodox Church as "a step toward a new fraternity and a more shared testimony, in the broad context of dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox."
In addition, as the Pope himself acknowledged, the meeting served to confirm the commitment of the two Christian churches to overcome the many difficulties that still exist in the ecumenical road.
The Pope's and Patriarch's embrace, including the three traditional kisses, are signs of hope that John Paul II's desire for a meeting of common prayer, with all the Orthodox Churches on the occasion of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, will be fulfilled.
But the papal visit has also served to help promote the small Catholic community of the country (some 100,000 faithful in a country of 5.5 million inhabitants). This morning, the Holy Father blessed the "House of the Poor" in Tiflis, the Georgian capital. A few Missionaries of Charity -- of the Congregation founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta --, who will manage this work of assistance and human promotion of the Church, were present at the ceremony. The Sisters sang in Polish and one of them placed a floral wreath around the Pope's neck.
John Paul II celebrated Mass in the Sports Palace of the city, in the presence of 10,000 people. Georgian President Eduard Schevernadze, former Minister of Foreign Affairs during the time of Gorbachev's "Perestroika" was in the front row. The President, who was baptized in the Orthodox Church seven years ago, was also an enthusiastic supporter of Gorbachev's "Glasnost" policies at the end of the 80s.
The setting was very simple, but the people were very enthusiastic. The papal chair was covered in yellow fabric. There was an altar and hundreds of little white and red lights, representing the rays of light coming from Christ's cross. The steps of the Tiflis Sports Palace were crowded with people. Some of the pilgrims had come from as far as Chechenia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
"Georgia has always looked toward the West, and has made her contribution to Christian Europe," the Pope said. Among those present, were many Orthodox, seemingly ignoring the appeal made by certain sectors of the Georgian Orthodox clergy, not to participate in the meeting with the Holy Father.
Following the disintegration of Communism, the time has arrived for "the evangelical values that Georgia has always cherished ... to shine with a new light in all parts of the planet where peace is reduced to an utopia," the Pope said.
In addition, John Paul II recognized that Georgia has always been an example of tolerance among the different religions. Very near to where the gathering took place, there are important Christian, Hebrew and Muslim places of worship.
By way of confirmation of this new fraternity, the faithful prayed in all the languages of the area: Armenian, Russian, Azerian, Georgian and English. At the end of the Mass, President Schevernadze spontaneously thanked the Holy Father for his visit. And the Pope announced that he was raising Giuseppe Pasotto to the dignity of Bishop. Fr. Pasotto has been the spiritual leader of Catholics in the Caucasus. The Pope expressed his wish to consecrate Fr. Pasotto himself on January 6, 2000.
In the afternoon, John Paul II visited President Schevernadze in his private residence. After meeting with representatives from the world of culture and science, the farewell ceremony took place, in the presence of the Georgian President, Orthodox Patriarch Ilja II and future Bishop Pasotto. ZE99110904 and ZE99110903
The papal trip to Iraq-- during which the Holy Father hopes to visit Ur of the Chaldeans, the ancient home of the patriarch Abraham-- will not take place until the end of January, 2000, at the earliest, Vatican officials have told reporters. The trip was originally scheduled for December, but tensions between the Holy See and the government of Saddam Hussein brought a halt to the preparations.
Vatican sources also indicate that the papal trip to Iraq, when it takes place, will probably not be joined with a trip to Egypt for a visit to Mt. Sinai. Such a two-legged voyage had been contemplated for January, but the increasingly fragile health of the Holy Father has led planners to reconsider those plans, in order to avoid taxing the Pope's stamina and exposing him to the harsh Iraqi winter.
However, Pope John Paul remains committed to making the trip to Iraq. Father Roberto Tucci, the Jesuit priest who has been regularly involved in preparations for papal voyages, will travel to Iraq later this month to resume the planning process.
Shlomo Ben Ami, Israeli Minister of Interior Security, justified the authorities' decision by saying that Israel "is a very complex mosaic where it is not easy to satisfy everyone."
All the Christian representatives expressed their disappointment over the Israeli government's decision, as the mosque does not respond to religious needs of the Islamic community, but to the interest of a small group intent on provocation in the very square where the Basilica receives pilgrims. Even the Palestinian National Authority has opposed the idea of the construction of a mosque. Last Easter, the fundamentalists carried out acts of violence against Christians and nearby stores. Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Michel Sabbah said that the decision could provoke the suspension of the Pope's visit to Nazareth during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
In the meantime, after receiving permission for construction of the mosque, the Islamic movement has dismantled the large tent it setup illegally on the square two years ago.
With a certain irony, Ben Ami stated that the presence of the Basilica and the mosque next to one another, "is a situation that is rather suggestive" and he assured that he would do everything "possible to guarantee the interests of the Churches and contribute to make conditions easier for the papal visit." He disclosed that a police post would be installed near the Basilica of the Annunciation in order to insure safe access to the faithful to the place of worship.
As a sign of protest, the Christian leaders of the Holy Land have decided to close all the Churches on November 22 and 23.
In a related story, according to a report in the Washington Post, the debate over the location of the site of Christ's baptism is developing into a political-economic struggle.
Mohammed Waheeb, a Jordanian archeologist cites Wadi Kharrar, Jordan, as the site, while Israeli archeologists propose a site on the Israeli side. With millions of pilgrims expected for the Jubilee, this academic debate has become all but academic.
The Gospel of John indicates that Christ was baptized in "Bethany beyond the Jordan," which would seem to imply that the location was on the East Bank. For this reason, Waheeb, a devout Muslim, began studying the Christian scriptures to locate the site.
In 1994, Waheeb began digging in a mine field near Wadi Kharrar, and hit Christian ruins. The remains include early monasteries and churches, as well as baptismal pools. This would seem to indicate that some early Christians had identified this place as the site of Christ's baptism. Even more surprising, the archeologist found a still-active network of springs, carrying water from this site into the nearby Jordan river.
Waheeb argues that this site, with its fresh spring water, is much more likely than sites actually on the Jordan, which is muddy and contains pea-green water. Many archeologists agree that even in the time of Jesus, the river was dirty.
The Jordanian Ministry of Tourism, led by Aquel Biltaji, has already invested $1 million in the excavations, and has budgeted another $6 million, much of which will come from U.S. assistance. The land mines have been removed, and the Jordanians have begun work on a visitors' center to welcome pilgrims, as well as a conference hall and a "John the Baptist Research Center."
The Israelis, for their part, reject Jordan's claim, citing several locations on the West Bank as possible sites of Jesus' baptism. One of these is Kasar el Yahud, near Jericho, which had been the site of Orthodox pilgrimages for over a thousand years. Unfortunately, since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967, the site lies in a militarized zone, and is open to tourists only twice a year. As an alternative, Israel has opened a site at Kibbutz Kinnaret, some seventy miles north of the site.
Archeologists remain split on the issue, but even some Israelis are coming to side with Waheed. "Unfortunately for Israeli tourism, the Book of John specifically states that Jesus was baptized east of the Jordan," stated Yadin Roman, editor of Eretz magazine. "They have a very plausible claim that during the Byzantine era that site was accepted as the site where Jesus was baptized."
For instance, certain factions have objected to Israel's suggestion to build another door in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher to provide a fire escape. Currently, all the doors but one are sealed, with the key entrusted to a Muslim family. The key to the proposed new door would be shared among the various Christian groups using the Basilica.
Elsewhere, there are arguments about the precise location of Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine, the identity of Mount Sinai, and the proposal of one Israeli businessman to build a submerged platform in the Sea of Galilee so that tourists can "walk on water," like Jesus did. ZE99110809 and ZE99110820
A panel of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously agreed that the First Amendment does not protect advertisers who want to post religious messages. The court said the baseball field was open only for a limited public purpose: education, and held that the Ten Commandments would not advance that educational purpose. It also held that the school district's policy was to avoid all controversial topics and thus could not be sued for singling out Christians.