Gearing Up for Papal Visit, AFP Kicks Off With Flawed Coverage

In anticipation of Pope Benedict XVI’s upcoming trip to Jordan, Israel and the West Bank, AFP is rolling out its preliminary coverage. Today’s reports about the May 8-15 pilgrimage demonstrate a faulty grasp of both Jewish and Christian issues in Israel.

Patrick Moser’s article entitled “Landmarks of the pope’s Holy Land pilgrimage” errs on a critical Jewish landmark, stating:

— Western Wall, Jerusalem: Also known as the Wailing Wall and considered Judaism’s holiest site. At the base of the mosque compound, which Jews believe was the site of the Second Temple destroyed by the Roman in 70 AD.

There are a number of problems with this excerpt. First, Judaism’s holiest site is not the Western Wall, but rather is located on the Temple Mount. The Western Wall’s holiness, in fact, is derived from its proximity to the location on the Temple Mount where the Jewish temples stood. (And, contrary to Moser, the temples — both first and second — presence at the site is more than just a matter of Jewish “belief.”) Also, given that the reporter elsewhere in the article notes that the “Al-Aqsa Mosque compound” “is Islam’s third holiest site,” the report should also note that the very same compound is Judaism’s most sacred site.

After investigating the issue, the BBC recently corrected a mistaken reference to the Western Wall as the holiest site in Judaism. A complaint summary on the BBC Web site notes:

ECU Ruling: Fate of Obama note alarms rabbis, BBC News Online
Publication date: 20 January 2009


A reader of this report about an aspect of Barack Obama’s visit to Israel complained that it had incorrectly described the Western Wall as “the holiest place in Judaism”.


Although the Western Wall is the holiest of those places whose locations are known and accessible, the site of the Holy of Holies of the Temple (which is on Temple Mount, though its exact location is not known) is regarded by religious authorities as the holiest place in Judaism.

Further action

This story has been amended, and changes are also being made to the special background guide on this subject. Staff will be reminded of the appropriate terminology.

More on the ruling by the BBC Editorial Complaints Unit can be read here. The misidentification of the Western Wall as Judaism’s holiest site is a recurring problem at AFP, and also appeared, for instance, in a March 3, 2009 article entitled “Pope to shun disputed photo at Holocaust museum: envoy.”

In a separate AFP article also today, Catherine Jouault misled readers about Israel’s Christian population, stating:

For its part the Church laments the difficult conditions endured by Christians in Israel.

Most of them Arab, they make up some two percent of Israel’s population of some several million.

Many are simply leaving the country, prompting fears that the Catholic presence will virtually evaporate from the cradle of Christianity.

In actuality, Israel’s Christian population is growing, not “evaporating.” As documented in the Central Bureau of Statistics’ Statistical Abstract of Israel 2008 (Chart 2.2), in the last dozen years, Israel’s Christian population grew from 120,600 in 1995 to 151,600 in 2007.
There’s an advantage of sorts to AFP’s early coverage of the Papal visit — it gives its reporters and editors lead time to get over the learning curve.

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