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CHIEF RABBI TIES POPE'S VISIT TO POLITICS

Putting a political twist on John Paul II's upcoming visit, Israel's chief rabbi said Thursday that the pope's planned stop at the Western Wall is tantamount to Vatican recognition of Israel's sovereignty over Jerusalem.

The pope is scheduled to visit the wall, Judaism's holiest site, as part of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in March.

The Vatican does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the eastern sector of Jerusalem -- which includes the Old City -- an area captured from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast War and coveted by the Palestinians as their future capital.

"This is recognition of Israel's sovereignty not just over new (west) Jerusalem but the Old City as well," Chief Rabbi Meir Lau told Israel radio. "There are 1 billion Catholic followers . . . for whom the pope visiting with the chief rabbis of Israel in the ancient area by the Western Wall has great significance."

The Vatican declined to comment on the rabbi's statement. The pope has said previously that no political significance should be attached to any of his Middle East pilgrimages.

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