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The angels want to wear my red shoes

Opinion: Will the pope leave a footprint in the Holy Land?

Pope Benedict XVI, accompanied by Jordan's Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal, visits King Hussein Bin Talal mosque in Amman, May 9, 2009. Pope Benedict retraced the steps of Moses on Saturday, visiting the mountain where the Bible says the ancient prophet glimpsed the Promised Land before dying, and preached that religion helps man search for truth. (Tony Gentile/Reuters)

BOSTON — Pope Benedict XVI has stumbled throughout his papacy.

And as his pilgrimage of “hope” through the Holy Land leads him across the storied Jordan River into Jerusalem Monday, he will have to watch every step he takes in those iconic red shoes.

He has offended Muslims and Jews in the past and one misstep in the Middle East’s unforgiving terrain could easily trigger yet another crisis in a land where the wounds from the war in Gaza are still fresh and the peace process lays buried under the rubble.

Admittedly, the Italian-made, ruby footwear that Benedict dons as part of the traditional papal dress code are hard shoes to fill.

His predecessor Pope John Paul II had a spiritual gracefulness and walked confidently into history when he made his journey to the Holy Land in 2000 to mark the turn of the millennium.

John Paul “The Great,” as some Vatican historians have already taken to calling him, did much to heal centuries of mistrust between Catholics and Jews and gently reminded all Catholics that the virulent anti-Semitism that emerged out of Christendom was a sin for which he sought atonement. He spoke of one family of God and of Judaism as “the older brother” of Christianity.

He spoke respectfully to Muslims about the shared values of the three Abrahamic faiths and he asserted a balanced cry for justice for Palestinians, while also carefully recognizing the miraculous journey that returned the Jews to their homeland with the creation of the state of Israel. He said both peoples deserved to live in peace.

This pope has shown none of that grace, nor does he exude the confidence and moral authority of his predecessor. He shuffles forward making one gaffe after another.

Of the Holy Land’s three Abrahamic faiths, it is hard to say which one — Islam, Judaism or Christianity — Pope Benedict XVI has alienated more.

The moment white smoke emerged from the Vatican signaling a new papacy in 2005, Jews around the world greeted the ascendancy of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger with skepticism. Here was a German-born pontiff who served in Hitler Youth and was briefly conscripted into the German Army at the end of the war. This pope did little to quell suspicions about what he might harbor in his heart when he revoked the excommunication of Richard Williamson, a schismatic bishop from an ultra-orthodox sect who ignited global outrage with his denial of the scope of the Holocaust.

Returning Wiliamson to the clerical fold was a mistake the pope has yet to rectify despite an outcry of condemnation from Israel and from Jewish communities around the world.

With Muslims, Benedict has also caused a great deal of alienation. In 2006, he gave a speech in Germany and quoted a Byzantine emperor who said that Islam encouraged violence and brought things “evil and inhuman.”