WASHINGTON, May 11 (UPI) -- Pope Benedict XVI wants to make his eight-day visit to Jordan and Israel a powerful symbol of his determination to reduce hatred in the world and build better ties between the Roman Catholic Church he heads and the other great monotheistic religions of Islam and Judaism. But the times are against him.
The pope has already been received warmly by King Abdullah II of Jordan and President Shimon Peres of Israel, both of whom have labored long and hard -- and so far in vain -- to peacefully resolve the intractable Israeli-Arab conflict.
"I come, like so many others before me, to pray at the holy places, to pray especially for peace -- peace here in the Holy Land and peace throughout the world," the pontiff said after entering the Jewish state.
Pope Benedict also called for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would lead to a homeland for both sides.
"I plead with all those responsible to explore every possible avenue in the search for a just resolution of the outstanding difficulties so that both peoples may live in peace in a homeland of their own, within secure and internationally recognized borders," he said.
At the age of 82, and after four years leading more than 1.25 billion Catholic Christians around the world, Pope Benedict remains vigorous and alert, denying the instant-wisdom pundits who labeled him a transitional figure when he succeeded the already-legendary John Paul II, his close friend, in 2005.
This pope, however, has both strengths and weaknesses very different from his beloved predecessor. They were both brilliant intellectuals and religious conservatives, but John Paul II was also a diplomat and brilliant political strategist who carefully used a wide circle of advisers, including even prominent journalists, as his sounding boards.
The current pope is an eminent theologian and lifelong academic, used to fearlessly speaking his mind but often prone to shooting from the hip. He angered Muslims with some comments drawn from a medieval Byzantine emperor who was critical of their faith and last year outraged Jews by accepting back into the fold of the church the notorious Bishop Richard Williamson, an English Holocaust denier.
In both cases, the pope apologized and worked hard to rebuild bridges of understanding with Muslim and Jewish religious leaders. But suspicions and hard feelings remain.
In Israel, the pope is packing in an exceptionally busy schedule with visits arranged to Yad Vashem, Israel's memorial center for the 6 million Jews murdered in the Nazi Holocaust through World War II. As the pope grew up in Nazi Germany -- a regime he always hated and despised -- this part of his trip is likely to be particularly emotionally charged. He has already said he will honor the memory those killed in the Holocaust and pledged that every effort must be made to stop anti-Semitism.
The pope is also visiting the Western Wall; a site known as the Temple Mount to Jews and the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims; a Palestinian refugee camp, and the town of Bethlehem, south of Jerusalem, the birthplace of both King David and Jesus.
Israeli President Peres praised Pope Benedict as "first among the faithful" and expressed hope the pope's presence would help foster peace in the region.
"I see your visit here, to the Holy Land, as an important spiritual mission of the highest order: a mission of peace, a mission of planting seeds of tolerance and uprooting the weeds of fanaticism," Peres said. "I appreciate your stances and your actions to bring down the level of violence and hatred in the world."
However, the pope's call for a Palestinian state will not be welcomed by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, both of whom see current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as far too weak to credibly deliver any Palestinian state that could prevent itself from being used a springboard for new Islamist terror attacks against Israel.
The leaders of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement in Gaza, continue to openly proclaim they will never recognize the existence of Israel or rest until it is destroyed. They have also openly called for the destruction of the city of Rome and the Vatican, the historic home of the Catholic Church and its popes.
As King Abdullah and President Peres showed, Pope Benedict does not lack allies and friends in both the Jewish and Arab worlds in his efforts to achieve a just and lasting peace for both sides. But the intractable hostility of Hamas, the Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and al-Qaida, along with similar radical Islamic groups, make that appear unlikely, even if the current yawning chasm between Israeli and Palestinian leaders can be bridged.
The pope's visit to Israel also comes a week before Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is due to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama in the White House. The two men are widely anticipated to clash head-on because of their very different views and favored policies on what to do about the peace process and the growing Iranian nuclear threat.
King Abdullah warned Monday that the crucial issues of war and peace throughout the region could hinge on what comes out of that Obama-Netanyahu meeting.
In these troubled and ominous times, Pope Benedict's determination to pray for "peace in the Holy Land and peace throughout the world" sounds like an impossible dream that would require a major miracle to come true. But then again, prayer and miracles are what the Christian faith has always been about.