Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Christian leaders here denounced anti-Jewish comments made by Syrian President Bashar Assad at a ceremony welcoming Pope John Paul II on his historic visit to the country, but reactions differed over the Pope's handling of the situation.
The pontiff, who is preaching a message of peace in the troubled Middle East while on a pilgrimage to sites associated with the Apostle Paul, did not respond to or counter Assad's harsh remarks.
Neither the pope nor the Vatican has said anything to contradict the statements.
In his address on Saturday, the Syrian leader compared Israel's treatment of the Palestinians to the way he said the Jews had treated Jesus 2000 years ago. He accused the Jewish people of "betraying and torturing" Jesus Christ and trying to harm Islam's prophet, Mohammed.
According to Father Michael McGarry, Rector of Tantour Ecumenical Institute - a Catholic institution in Jerusalem -- the church's "long very sad tradition" of blaming the Jewish people for the death of Jesus had been repudiated over the last 40 years.
The church never accused the Jews of trying to kill Mohammed, he added.
(Mohammed's relationship with the Jews of Medina in Arabia remains open to differing historical views. He first embraced the Jews, then rejected them after they failed to recognize him as a prophet. A treaty was signed between them in 622. Later, the Jews were accused of siding with pagan Arabian tribes against Mohammed. In the end, the Muslims exiled two Jewish tribes and destroyed a third.)
Malcolm Hedding, executive director of the pro-Israel International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, rejected the remarks and questioned why the Vatican did not speak out against them.
"We completely reject the vicious anti-Semitic remarks by Syrian dictator Bashar Assad upon greeting Pope John Paul II in Damascus on Saturday," Hedding said on Monday.
"We also note our disappointment with the Vatican's failure to timely exercise its moral voice in rebutting this attack on the Jewish people," he added.
"[What Assad said] is not at all what we believe," said Rev. Petra Heldt, Director of the Ecumenical Theological Research Fraternity in Israel. The Catholic Church has taken a stand against anti-Semitism, she added.
However, Heldt said that she believed that the Pope was correct not to respond.
"I think that Pope did very well by answering as a faithful Christian and not commenting on the remark," Heldt said in a telephone interview on Monday.
"The Pope never gives a response," McGarry said. He sticks to a prepared text, he added.
That prepared text included praise for his host. The pope said he was confident that, under Assad's guidance, "Syria will spare no effort to work for greater harmony and cooperation among the peoples of the region"
Assad, who last month accused Israelis of being worse racists than the Nazis, said in his speech that the Jews "try to kill all the principles of divine faiths with the same mentality of betraying Jesus Christ and torturing Him, and in the same way that they tried to commit treachery against Prophet Mohammad ...
"We feel that in your prayers when you recall the agony of Jesus Christ you will remember the peoples of Lebanon, the Golan and Palestine who are tormented and they suffer from suppression and persecution. We expect Your Holiness to be on their side in their endeavor to regain what was unjustly usurped from them," he added.
Hedding charged that, from the start, "the Syrian regime was determined to exploit the Pope's visit for devious political purposes."
Israel's Foreign Ministry on Sunday broke its own rule of not commenting on the papal visit, because of its ostensibly religious nature. The ministry issued a statement denouncing Assad's "inciteful slander" and calling on the Holy See to renounce the words.
But McGarry said that he doubted the Vatican would respond to the Syrian statements, and would rather "let the pope's comments speak for themselves."
Call For Peace
On Monday, speaking at one of the most contested sites in the Middle East, the pope called for peace in the region. Speaking from the abandoned town of Quneitra on the Golan Heights, the pontiff said that "true peace" was a gift from God.
Israel captured the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six Day War and returned some of it to Syria as a result of a 1974 armistice agreement, following another Arab-Israeli war in 1973.
Quneitra, a key center for Syrian troops, was destroyed in the fighting. Although the town was returned to Syria in 1974, the Syrians chose not to return its population, and the town has ever since remained as a symbol of the fact Israel still holds the remainder of the Golan.
Talks between Israel and Syria over the fate of the Golan broke down last year after Syria demanded that the territory Israel was to relinquish should include the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee, Israel's primary freshwater source. Israel was willing to negotiate for the return of the land up to close of the shoreline, but no more.
"From this place, so disfigured by war, I wish to raise my heart and voice in prayer for peace in the Holy Land," the Pontiff said from a ruined Greek Orthodox Church in Quneitra.
"We pray to you for the peoples of the Middle East. Help them to tear down the walls of hostility and division, and to build together a world of justice and solidarity," he prayed.
On Sunday, the pontiff made an historic visit as the first serving pope ever to enter a mosque. Donned in white cloth slippers, he entered the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus.
The mosque was formerly a church, a traditional site of John the Baptist's tomb. Outside the mosque is the tomb of Salaheddin al-Ayoubi (Saladin), the Muslim warrior who captured Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187.