Muslim cleric slams Israel to pope, raising anger

JERUSALEM Tue May 12, 2009 10:00am BST

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A senior Palestinian Muslim cleric fiercely denounced Israeli policy in Jerusalem in the presence of Pope Benedict on Monday and appealed to the pope to help end what he called the "crimes" of the Jewish state.

The speech, at the end of a meeting between the pope and Christian, Muslim and Jewish clergy engaged in contacts among the three main religions in Jerusalem, angered both the Vatican and Israel's chief rabbinate, which said it would boycott the dialogue forum until the Palestinians barred the cleric.

Referring to Palestinian Muslims and Christians, Sheikh Taysir al-Tamimi said: "We struggle together and suffer together from the oppression of the Israeli occupation.

"We look forward together to liberation and independence and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state."

The incident further marred the start of the German-born pope's five-day tour of Israel and the Palestinian territories, after criticism by some Jews that a speech at a Holocaust memorial did not go far enough to mend Catholic-Jewish rifts.

Pope Benedict, in his own speech to the gathering of priests, rabbis and sheikhs, praised their efforts to seek common values and mutual respect to overcome differences in religious practices that "may at times appear as barriers."

The final speaker from the platform at an auditorium in a Roman Catholic institution was Tamimi, the chief judge of the Muslim religious courts in the Palestinian territories.

In uncompromising language, he welcomed the pope to "Jerusalem, the eternal capital of Palestine" -- a direct riposte to Israeli claims to the same city -- and enumerated many of the complaints Palestinians have against Israel.

"DESECRATION"

He said Israel had "desecrated" the Old City's holy sites since capturing it from Jordanian forces in the 1967 Middle East war and was defying international law by demolishing homes, seizing land, building Jewish settlements and erecting a series of walls and fences that had turned the city into "a prison."

Tamimi won a round of applause from some of the assembled clerics for comments referring to Israel's military offensive in the Gaza Strip in January in which 1,400 Palestinians died.

Addressing the pope at the end of a six-minute address, he said: "Your Holiness, I call on you in the name of the one God, to condemn these crimes and press the Israeli government to halt its aggression against the Palestinian people."

Tamimi shook the pope's hand as he left the podium and the meeting broke up as scheduled immediately afterwards.

The director general of Israel's Chief Rabbinate, Oded Wiener, said: "Sheikh Tamimi embarrassed the pope."

He said Tamimi, a familiar and fiery figure in Palestinian public life, had pressured the Catholic organizers to be allowed to speak and that the Jewish members would no longer take part in a long-standing, three-way interfaith dialogue until the sheikh was barred from attending.

"The Chief Rabbinate will not continue it as long as Tamimi is part of the Palestinian delegation," Wiener said.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said: "The speech by Sheikh Taysir Tamimi was not scheduled by the organizers of the meeting. In a meeting dedicated to dialogue, this intervention was a direct negation of what a dialogue should be. We hope that such an incident will not damage the mission of the pope aiming at promoting peace and also interreligious dialogue."

(Additional reporting by Labib Nasir and Tom Heneghan)

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