Pope′s Middle East mission sows discord | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 24.05.2014
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Pope's Middle East mission sows discord

The Manger Square in Bethlehem is extraordinarily immaculate this week in preparation of Pope Francis' visit. However, not everyone will have the opportunity to see the Pope during his visit.

Come Sunday the square outside the Church of Nativity, the birth place of Jesus, will be packed with up to 9,000 Christians who will attend a mass and 1,000 journalists when Pope Francis arrives by helicopter from Amman.

In Bethlehem the pope will meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, hold the mass and then visit a nearby refugee camp.

Tickets to the mass have been issued to Christians from Jerusalem, Ramallah, the Galilee and Gaza. But not all Christians will be able to see the pope during this visit. Just a 10-minute car journey separates Bethlehem and Jerusalem, but a separation wall between the two and a checkpoint have created a barrier to Christians accessing holy sites in Jerusalem. Streets have been closed in Jerusalem preventing Palestinians and Arab-Israeli Christians from being on the streets in East Jerusalem when the pope visits on Sunday evening and Monday.

Ghost town

"We demand that Palestinian Christians be allowed to be on the streets and that the city will not be placed under curfew, we would like the pope to use his diplomatic capacity in a situation where the peace process is almost completely halted," said Hind Khoury from the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center and former Palestinian Minister for Jerusalem Affairs.

stage Copyright: Kate Shuttleworth

Papal preparations are in full swing

Yusef Daher, head of the Jerusalem Inter Church Center, said he had been in a meeting ahead of the Pope's visit with Israeli officials.

"It will be a ghost city. One Catholic was asking an Israeli during these planning sessions of the visit and he told him: 'I don't really understand, there will be nobody in the streets of Jerusalem except cats?' and the Israeli answered, 'not even cats.'"

Unlike the large audiences that see the pope most Wednesdays in Rome, Arab-Israelis living in Jerusalem will not get the same privilege.

"This has been the case in every single visit of the pope, we had a very hard time with Pope Benedict's visit and it seems we will not get in touch with this holy visitor," said Daher.

According to Khoury, Jerusalem is increasingly closed to Palestinians. She said that during Easter time it was nearly impossible for Palestinian Christians to get access to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and holy sites within the Old City.

Dwindling numbers

In terms of numbers and influence of Palestinian Christians, the statistics are grim - in 1947, the last year of British rule, 85 percent of Bethlehem's population was Christian. In Jerusalem it was around 19 percent but today it is 20 percent and 1.8 percent respectively.

However, the number of Christians across the whole of Israel has risen from 34,000 in 1948 to 125,000 today.

There are no official population statistics in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, while in the Gaza Strip governed by Islamist group Hamas the Christian populations have halved to around 1,400.

Yusef Daher said there were only 8,000 Christians left in Jerusalem and that a report that Christians wanted to emigrate of their own volition wasn't entirely correct.

"My brother who is in the US now was deprived the right to come back to Jerusalem, they [the Israeli authorities] revoked his residency right."

A recent survey carried out by Near East Consulting in Ramallah showed that 62 percent of Christians in Jerusalem wanted to emigrate. A third of them said they knew of one family who had left in the last five years.

Bernard Sabella, an expert on Palestinian Christian history and demography who oversaw the recent survey, said of the 300 Christians surveyed, 81 percent believed the occupation was the biggest challenge they faced. This was followed by settlements and an absence of a peace process, then by a variety of economic factors including unemployment and housing.

This week Israeli authorities placed three Israeli citizens under house arrest during the time of the papal visit amid concerns that the Jewish ultra-nationalists would disrupt the visit in some way.

Papstreise Israel Copyright: Kate Shuttleworth

Jerusalem could resemble a ghost town

There has also been a growing fear that "price tag" attacks against the Christian community would occur during the papal visit.

Yusef Daher said he had kept a record of price tag attacks over the past five years and pointed out that the number had doubled from 10 attacks in 2012, to 22 in 2013. In early May vandals wrote "death to Arabs and Christians" in Hebrew on the Vatican's Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem's Old City and similar graffiti was found on a wall close to the Romanian Orthodox church.

"We think that fanatic Jewish individuals or groups are encouraged indirectly at least by the government's policy which is not interested in peace, which is encouraging more settlements during the peace talks and claiming exclusivity over the Old City for the Jewish majority," he said.

Hopes and expectations

Local worshippers are hoping Pope Francis will use the whirlwind trip to Israel and the West Bank to recognize their plight but after the collapse of recent peace talks they are not hopeful.

"We cannot expect much from the pope - but we need a message of justice and peace, or encouragement, of hope for the future," said Father Khader.

Hind Khoury said she believed it was within the pope's mandate to condemn the occupation and the treatment of Palestinians.

"The visit of a very high moral authority in the world is needed - what is happening in Jerusalem is not only an abuse of international law and human rights it's so morally incorrect that one people is given the right to live, while another people is denied the simple right to live."

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