Tuesday, 3 June 2014

The Pope's Visit to the Holy Land

Pope Francis said in his Vatican address on the Wednesday before his visit that his upcoming trip to the Middle East would be entirely devotional.

‘It will be a purely religious trip’ he told the 50.000 pilgrims in St Peter’s Square.  He said the main reasons for the visit, billed a ‘pilgrimage of prayer’ by the Vatican, were to meet with Orthodox Patriarch of Contantinople, Bartholomew and to pray for peace in that land, which has suffered so much.

The visit began on Saturday May 24, when Francis flew to Amman in Jordan and met Syrian refugees. He then travelled on to Bethlehem, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, concluding his tour on Monday 26 May with mass in the place where Christians believe Jesus had the Last Supper with his disciples.  He met with refugees from both Aida and Dheisheh camps in Bethlehem , as well as  praying at the Western Wall, laying a wreath on the grave of Theodor Herzl - the founder of  Zionism - and made a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum here in Jerusalem.  He met with Christian families as well as political and religious leaders from all three monotheistic faiths.

In keeping with his unassuming and humble persona, he rejected the armoured car, or Pope mobile, we have been used to seeing on papal visits.  He was also, unusually, travelling with a rabbi and an imam who worked with him on inter-faith dialogue in Argentina.

Francis’s visit was met with high expectations by the faithful and politicians alike but there had been some opposition.  The previous week, vandals daubed hate graffiti on Vatican owned property in East Jerusalem.

Christianity was born in this region but the ancient community has dwindled to around 2% of the population, as economic hardship and the bitter realities of the Israel-Palestinian conflict have sent Christians searching for better opportunities overseas.  Catholic leaders fear that if the trend continues, the Holy Land will become a sort spiritual Disneyland, full of tourist pilgrims but devoid of local believers. The Pope said in a November speech that ’We will not be resigned to think about the Middle East without Christians”. 

The Catholic Herald said that this would be Pope Francis’s greatest test yet.  To quote their recent article ‘His prophetic style of leadership is likely to cause all sides some discomfort.  Let’s just hope that it also leaves them just one step closer together’

After Francis’s meetings with local Christians in Manger Square and the refugee camps in Bethlehem, followed by the highly publicized and controversial stop by the Israeli Separation Barrier in Bethlehem, the local Christians here in Jerusalem were very excited about this visit.  There was a palpable feeling of anticipation in the Old City.

According to David Kuttab of Maan News: ‘the highlight of the entire trip was not planned, rehearsed, or even expected'.

The Pope had decided not to cross any checkpoints to enter the UN-declared non-member state of Palestine and so the idea of an image of the Pope interacting with the occupation or seeing the wall was thought to have been bypassed.  However, as he was driving around Bethlehem in his open car, the Pontiff passed by the entrance of the Aida refugee camp and noticed the separation wall. It is hard for anyone not to take notice of the 8-meter-high wall and it was even harder for the Jesuit Pope who has empathy for the weak and oppressed not to stop.

The wall at this point, built deep into Palestinian land, divides the Aida camp in half, surrounds Rachel's Tomb and cuts off Palestinian communities from each other.

He alighted from his car and spent some time praying here at the separation wall.  The powerful symbolism of this was not lost on a Bethlehem taxi driver I met a few days later.  He said, ‘I was pleased the Pope prayed at the wall and didn’t just ignore it.  He is a good man.’

In Jerusalem, as expected, the Pope did meet with church leaders and politicians and leaders from other faiths, including the Islamic Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.  The public, however, including local Christians, were almost entirely prevented from catching even a glimpse of him for most of the day.  The Old City and roads around the papal route were blocked by the Israeli army and police.  Screens had even been erected at viewpoints to ensure that no one could see his visit to pray at the Western Wall.

Many Jerusalem Christians were beaten by the Israeli army as they tried to get to see the Pope.  Some of them wrote him a letter after his visit, which was published on Palestine News Network on May 27th:

Our women, children and disabled were beaten this evening in Jerusalem while they were trying to get a glance of you passing in the streets of their city … the Israeli Police ordered us to go to another place, to the streets, and then accused us of blocking the streets!! Women and children were injured and young men were arrested for some timeNo one came to our rescue.

The very persistent were rewarded in the evening with a wave from his car as he departed for his return journey on Monday night to Tel Aviv.

Photo by Sandra Sych

David Kuttab of Maan News believes the visit to have had a positive effect and that it will do much ‘to strengthen and empower the local Christian community’.

It remains to be seen whether this optimistic view will be borne out. For Jerusalemites, the visit was more than disappointing.

We long to live normal lives in our city with full human rights and total freedom. Not with barriers and bars. We long for a living church, not empty stones. We aspire to self-determination, liberated from an oppressive occupation that imposes discriminatory regulations and laws where Jerusalem becomes exclusive for one people and one religion.

it will take more than symbolic gesturing at walls to bring about the peace and justice required to entice Christians back to their holy land. 

Photo by Michaela Whitton

I work for Quaker Peace & Social Witness (QPSW) as an ecumenical accompanier serving on the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). The views contained in this email are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of QPSW or the World Council of Churches. If you would like to publish the information contained here (including posting it on a website), or distribute it further, please first contact the QPSW Programme Manager for Middle East teresap@quaker.org.uk for permission. Thank you.

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