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Pope’s hopes

This posting on preparations for the visit of Pope Francis to Jordan, the Palestinian Territories and Israel, May 24-26, has these items:
1) Al Monitor: Pope visit to boost Palestinian calls for statehood, in the realistic world, Palestinians see the Pope’s visit as confirming their aspirations for statehood.;
2) Haaretz: Pope’s visit: Great expectations, great disappointment?, Ariel David on the conflicts needing a miraculous touch;
3) Haaretz: Holy Land Christians disappointed by pope’s visit, Alona Ferber finds Palestinian Christians hoped for more time with Pope Francis;
4) Ma’an news: Gazan Christians travel to West Bank for Pope visit;
5) The National: Jordan bustles with life ahead of Pope Francis’ visit;
6) The Tablet: In pursuit of peace and reconciliation, Edward Kessler in the Catholic weekly looks at the schisms the Pope is expected to heal;

Palestinians, and Starbucks, prepare to welcome the Pope. Photo by Mohamad Torokman / Reuters

Pope visit to boost Palestinian calls for statehood

Palestinians are eagerly preparing for the visit of Pope Francis to the Holy Land, where he is expected to express his support for Palestinian rights and statehood.

By Daoud Kuttab Al Monitor / Palestine Pulse
May 22, 2014

The Palestinians are looking to Pope Francis to help legitimize their aspirations of independence and statehood, and hope the visit will shine a light on their decades of refugee existence, occupation and colonial settlement. Much effort went into ensuring that the pontiff’s visit to Palestine precedes his visit to Israel so as not to create the impression that Palestine is an internal Israeli issue.

The latest schedule issued by the church and Palestinian officials indicates that the pope will arrive in Bethlehem by a Jordanian military helicopter. A news report by AFP quoted a Palestinian church official as saying that the pope will arrive in Bethlehem without crossing the Israeli-controlled King Hussein Bridge or any Israeli checkpoint, and will “recognize Palestine” and oppose the occupation.

Palestinian hangs a flag next to posters depicting Pope Francis outside a souvenir shop in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, May 19, 2014. Photo by Mussa Qawasma / Reuters

The official itinerary says that the pope will meet President Mahmoud Abbas at the presidential headquarters in Bethlehem. In capital letters, the schedule says that on the morning of Sunday, May 25, the pope will make a “courtesy visit to the president of the State of Palestine.” The visit to Palestine will also include a short stop for a meeting with Palestinian refugee children from Aida, Dheisheh and Beit Jibrin.

The reference to the State of Palestine is fitting, as the Vatican supported the overwhelming decision by the UN General Assembly to recognize Palestine as a non-member state, the same status held by the Holy See. The Vatican has publicly called for full Palestinian sovereignty over the land of Palestine. While Palestinians will welcome the recognition that the pope’s official visit to Palestine will provide, the visit will also be an opportunity for them to protest the continued Israeli occupation and restrictions.

A church committee began releasing a series of videos that began with a five-minute report about the permit system that Israel uses to control the movement of Palestinians. A cross made of chipped stones from the separation wall will be presented to the pontiff, symbolizing the difficulties that Palestinians face every day as they carry the cross of oppression. A special photography exhibit will open on the occasion of the pope’s visit by the Palestinian Museum, juxtaposing iconic biblical images with those of current Palestinian suffering.

Church leaders have also been condemning a series of attacks against churches by radical Jewish settlers, known as “price tag” attacks. Jewish extremists scrawled messages such as “Jesus is garbage” and “death to Arabs” on the Romanian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem earlier this month. Four Israeli settlers were arrested on charges of anti-Arab hate crimes, and an Israeli restraining order was issued to place a number of radical Jewish settler leaders under house arrest during the pope’s visit.

This visit to Palestine will provide a unique opportunity for Palestinians to restate their aspirations to end the occupation and establish an independent state, as well as find a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem. The concern of Pope Francis for the needs of the poor and the social gospel that he has been preaching will be directly relevant to the economic and social disparity between the occupied and the occupiers.

After ending his visit to Palestine, the pontiff will leave Bethlehem by helicopter for the Ben Gurion airport, where his official visit to Israel will begin. The symbolism of his recognizing Palestine, hearing the voices of its people and not crossing Israel’s checkpoints will speak volumes.



From Times of Israel. Anti-Christian graffiti reading “Price tag, David the king, Jesus Junk for the Jews” spray painted on the Romanian Church in Jerusalem on May 9, 2014.

“The police and Shin Bet (security service) have taken out restraining orders against several right-wing activists, who according to information from Shin Bet are planning to commit provocative acts during the pope’s visit,” a police spokesman told AFP. Media reports said three young activists were under house arrest. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90


Pope’s visit: Great expectations, great disappointment?

Israel’s national and Jewish sites will get little facetime during Pope Francis’ whirlwind visit – but the government is praying that the photo ops in Bethlehem don’t lead to major political fallout.

By Ariel David, Haaretz
May 14, 2014

A papal pilgrimage to the Holy Land is a unique event; one which raises expectations of strong calls for peace, principled political stands and steps forward in the dialogue between the three monotheistic faiths.

All that may yet happen during Pope Francis’ whirlwind Middle East tour from May 24-26. But the pontiff himself has made clear that the “main goal” of his “pilgrimage of prayer” is somewhat more limited: Commemorating the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s visit and especially that pope’s meeting in Jerusalem with the Orthodox Christian Patriarch Athenagoras I.

As the first papal visit to the Holy Land, Paul’s 1964 pilgrimage was certainly historic, and his meeting with Athenagoras paved the way for better relations with the Orthodox Church after centuries of schism.

But with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in tatters, the Arab world in turmoil and Christian communities across the region dwindling and increasingly persecuted, why is the Vatican framing the trip as a relatively mundane commemoration of a meeting that happened half a century ago?



Welcome banner for Pope Francis hangs near the Church of the Nativity, one of the stops of Pope Francis during his upcoming visit in the Holy Land at the end of this month, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Israel’s internal security agency said it fears there could be more anti-Christian vandalism attacks, and local Vatican officials have urged Israel to safeguard Christian holy sites ahead of the Pope Francis’ visit at the end of the month. Photo by Nasser Nasser / AP

Holy Land Christians disappointed by pope’s visit

Catholics put hope in Pope Francis’ visit, but dreamed of more face time with the pontiff.

By Alona Ferber, Haaretz
May 22, 2014

Catholic communities in Israel are praying for the success of Pope Francis’ visit, but excitement and joy are tinged with disappointment that the visit is so short, and that only one event on his schedule west of the Jordan River is truly open to the public.

The pontiff lands in Amman on May 24, visiting Bethlehem and Jerusalem, before leaving on May 26. (John Paul II visited for five days in 2000, while Benedict XVI visited for eight days in 2009.) The principal goal of the visit, the Vatican has said, is unity of the churches: The Pope’s meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Eastern Orthodox Archbishop of Constantinople in Jerusalem, marks 50 years since the historic encounter between Pope Paul VI and the Patriarch Athenagoras I.

Aside from a mass in Amman on May 24, a mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square the following day is the only scheduled event of the trip that the faithful can attend. With space limited to an estimated 10,000 people, and more than 160,000 Catholics in Israel and the Palestinian territories, according to estimates cited by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, many will miss out.

The fact that the pope has so little time “is very sad for a lot of people,” says Rev. Father David Neuhaus S.J., patriarchal vicar for Israel’s Hebrew-speaking Catholic communities. “We are hoping that he comes back again so he can meet the faithful.”

Galilee-free itinerary

The decision not to include a visit to Nazareth and the Galilee, where there is a prominent Christian community, is also a sore point among Christians in the area. “It is no secret that people in the Galilee aren’t happy,” says Wadie Abunassar, who heads a think tank in Haifa and was involved in media for the two past papal visits, “But they say, we respect the decision.”

Despite the disappointment of some, there is also “lots of excitement and expectation, as there would be of any pope,” says Neuhaus, who witnessed the two previous visits. The difference, he says, is that Pope Francis is perceived as warmer and more spontaneous, and “people will be playing close attention to gestures and words.”

At an annual procession in honor of the Virgin Mary in Haifa on Sunday, May 11, participants carried posters of the pope, he says, and there was much enthusiasm for the visit.

One person lucky enough to land tickets to the Bethlehem mass is Beatrice Abuso, a migrant from the Philippines. “Wow, I can say wow. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us, I’m really, really, really excited, and looking forward to this visit,” she says.

Abuso’s church, Divine Mercy Chapel, near Tel Aviv’s central bus station, has a congregation of around 1,000, mainly from the Philippines, and others from India, Sri Lanka and Eritrea. Abuso is organizing five buses to transport the lucky 100 ticket-holders, and another 150 non-ticket holders who want to at least be in Bethlehem for the event. “Everyone is just dying to go,” she says.

Tickets were divided between parishes, and a set of criteria agreed upon so people active in church communities will be first in line. Tourists are not eligible.

Unity of the churches

With ecumenism the focus of the visit, Catholic communities are organizing a nine-day prayer initiative starting May 14, raising awareness of the need for community prayer, praying for the success of the pilgrimage and the meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew.

Pupils at the Terra Sancta School for Girls at Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate will be taking part, says its principal, Sister Frida Nasser. Sister Nasser was 16 at the time of an historic 1964 papal visit, and she remembers the excitement. “Everyone was out on the road to greet him,” she recalls.

In preparation this year, posters of Pope Francis decorate the school playground and classrooms. Meanwhile, teachers have talked to students about the Pope’s position in the church, his significance to Christians, and the fact that church unity is the aim of the visit.

Christians in Israel live their day-to-day lives together regardless of denomination, says Firas Abedrabbo, from Beit Jala, who works at the media office of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, the issue of church division is close to his heart. “My own family has Orthodox Christian members through marriage, there is no rigid separation,” he says. It pains him, he says, to see division at the level of leadership and dogma, and he hopes the visit will help.

Pope Francis is coming to Israel at a complex time, with recently collapsed peace talks, inter-faith tensions and hate crimes hitting the headlines.

“There are going to be blessings from this visit, and we don’t want to live according to tensions of the extremist fringe, or political tensions,” says Neuhaus. They also believe the visit will benefit Christians, Muslims and Jews alike, and the peace process. “We are hoping he will bring words of wisdom for leaders of the country,” he says.

One person feeling particularly upbeat about the pope’s pilgrimage is a young Venezuelan student who won a Tourism Ministry contest to visit the Holy Land at the same time as Pope Francis. Gustavo Adolfo Franco Picaza, 22, will be traveling with his mother on the all-expenses paid trip. Franco Picaza “cried, jumped and danced with joy” at the news, he told Haaretz. But will he get the opportunity to see or meet the pontiff?

“I sincerely hope I will have the opportunity to see him, and above all to meet him. I would like to bring him a message of love, and pray together with him,” he says.



Gazan Christians travel to West Bank for Pope visit

By AFP /Ma’an news
May 21, 22, 2014


Catholics queue to receive communion during mass at the Holy Family Church
in Gaza City on May 4, 2014 Photo by Thomas Coex / AFP

GAZA CITY — Several hundred Palestinian Christians from the Gaza Strip have been allowed to leave the besieged Palestinian territory to travel to the West Bank for Pope Francis’s upcoming visit, officials said Thursday.

“Israel allowed around 650 Christians in Gaza to travel to the West Bank during the pope’s visit” this weekend, a security official told AFP .

Dozens of pilgrims passed through the Erez border crossing Thursday morning, an AFP correspondent said, referring to the Israeli-controlled personnel crossing from the Strip, which is run by the Hamas movement.

Pope Francis arrives in Jordan on Saturday before traveling to the West Bank town of Bethlehem, then to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

“This visit honors Palestinians and recognizes them as a people, and acknowledges their rights,” said 22-year-old Milad Ayyad, whose mother will go while he is left behind.

Israel has only allowed Christians over 35 years of age to go.

Minerva Saba, a 54-year-old woman who lost a son during an Israeli military operation in Gaza in 2008, called on the pope to “come to Gaza and pray with us in our church, to see how people live here.”

“Christians are a minority in Gaza and they have many problems which the pope must hear about,” she said.

Gaza is home to only some 1,500 Christians out of an overwhelmingly Muslim population of 1.7 million people. Most of them are Greek Orthodox, and only about 130 Roman Catholic.

They have been targeted in a few attacks by militants since Hamas took over Gaza in 2007. A hand grenade exploded in the courtyard of a Roman Catholic church in Gaza City in February, and in 2011, a bomb targeted the director of Gaza’s Anglican hospital, who escaped unharmed.

Like other Gaza Palestinians, Christians have also suffered as a result of the severe Israeli-imposed economic blockade since 2007.

Ma’an staff contributed to this report.


bethany-beyond-jordan
Bethany-Beyond-Jordan (i.e., in Jordan) is claimed as the place where Jesus was baptized, and thus as the birthplace of Christianity as a religion.

Jordan bustles with life ahead of Pope Francis’ visit

By Suha Maayeh, The National
May 22, 2014

AMMAN // Jordan is hoping the visit of Pope Francis on Saturday will boost the kingdom’s flagging religious tourism industry in a country that has one of the region’s most significant pilgrimage sites.

The 77-year-old pontiff will start his three-day tour of the Holy Land by meeting King Abdullah II and Queen Rania before celebrating mass at Amman’s international stadium.

The Argentinian’s trip to Jordan is spiritual and humanitarian in nature. He will be meeting with orphans, those with disabilities and others struggling with illness, as well as Syrian and Iraqi refugees forced to flee their homes.

In the evening he will head to Bethany Beyond the Jordan, the site in the Jordan Valley where Jesus is said to have been baptised.

The Pope will leave Amman on Sunday morning and will be flown by helicopter to Bethlehem in the West Bank, where he will celebrate mass in Manger Square, before heading to Israel in the evening.

The late Pope John Paul II, who visited Jordan in 2000 in the first papal tour of the country since 1964, recognised Bethany Beyond the Jordan as the site where Jesus was baptised, denying Israeli claims the baptism took place in its territory.

Underscoring the significance of that decision, Pope Benedict XVI also visited the site in 2009, as part of his pilgrimage to the region.

But despite the Vatican’s recognition, the number of religious tourists in Jordan has dropped significantly in recent years, as the global financial crisis and regional turmoil dealt a blow to the Middle East’s travel sector.

While Jordan is pleased to have the various refugee crises highlighted — the kingdom is dependent on UN aid to meet the costs of hosting hundreds of thousands of displaced people — it is nonetheless firmly focused on the opportunity to market the country to Christian pilgrims, including the world’s 1.6 billion Catholics.

“The pope’s visit, spiritual, humanitarian, comes at a critical time in the region. We are in a hot zone,” said Dia Madani, director of the Baptism Site commission.

“He is not here to market Jordan’s religious sites. Still, it is the spiritual aspect of the visit which we bank on. He comes here as a pilgrim, starting with the baptism site. It is a tradition for Catholics to follow the footsteps of the Pope.”

Ahead of the visit, workers are toiling round the clock at Bethany BBeyond the Jordan, hanging photos of the Pope and installing lighting for an evening mass on Saturday.

A special passage has been created to enable him to reach the Jordan River.

Posters showing King Abdullah greeting the Pope have also been hung in the capital, Amman, and on the road to the baptism site, north of the Dead Sea.

The site was once a military zone but in 1997, three years after Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty, the area was demined and, in 2002, opened to the public.

In 2010, the site had its peak number of tourists, with 250,000 pilgrims visiting but in the last two years, the number of tourists has dropped.

Many tourists come to the region on package tours that take in other nations and have put their plans on the back burner because of the war in Syria.

In 2013, the number of tourists had dropped to just 86,300 visiting the baptism site, the vast majority, 39,000, from Europe.

“We are hoping there will be more business,” said Simon Al Shoumali, a partner at Saint John The Baptist Store, that sells religious items from icons to charms at the site.

“Traffic was fair but it could be better. Because of the regional circumstances, the business has slowed down by 20 per cent. But now we started noticing Italians coming here for the Pope’s visit.”

Since excavations began in 1996, 11 churches, caves and baptism pools dating to the Roman and Byzantine period were uncovered in Jordan.

“We are hoping to reach the benchmark of a million visitors annually,” Mr Dia, the Baptism site director, said. But he acknowledged it will not be an easy task with high prices of air fares to the country, taxes and a limited budget for Jordan’s Tourism Board, the promotional arm of the tourism ministry, to market the country abroad.

The Baptism site is currently undergoing a major development plan that entails constructing 13 churches and monasteries. “More than half are already built,” Mr Dia said. “We want to rewrite history and to turn it into a Christian pilgrimage site.”



In pursuit of peace and reconciliation

By Edward Kessler, The Tablet
May 22, 2014

The purpose of Francis’ momentous pilgrimage is to cement a historic peace with the Eastern Orthodox Church, but observers will be looking to him to use his influence to ease political and religious tensions in today’s divided Middle East

This will not be Pope Francis’ first visit to the Holy Land. Fr Jorge Bergoglio was in Israel in October 1973, when he was ­provincial of the Jesuits. But then the Yom Kippur War obliged him to stay in his hotel, so he spent most of his time reading the Bible, and did not have much opportunity to tour. It will be different this time.

The Pope will arrive in Jordan today, accompanied by his friends from Buenos Aires, Rabbi Abraham Skorka, rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary, and Omar Abboud, the Muslim director of the Institute for Interreligious Dialogue. The highlight of his trip will be a meeting with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Eastern Orthodox Archbishop of Constantinople, whom he will meet in private followed by a joint declaration at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

It is tempting to think that with talks between the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority stalled, if not moribund, a papal visit will breathe new life into the peace process. Vera Baboun, the first female mayor of Bethlehem, hopes so. The peace process, she said, has been hampered by a lack of courageous leadership. “How many courageous hearts do we have in the world? Francis has a courageous heart,” said Baboun, 50, a Roman Catholic in a city where most Christians are Orthodox and the Christian population has dropped to 15 per cent from a high of 85 per cent in 1947.

Yet the Vatican is downplaying the political symbolism of the visit, as Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto, the papal nuncio to Israel, explained: “The Holy Father is coming to ­commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the meeting of Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras. That is the main purpose of the visit.”

Francis’ meeting with the ecumenical ­patriarch in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre marks the historic 1964 meeting in Jerusalem between their two predecessors, at which the leaders lifted a mutual excommunication that had been in place since 1054. Bartholomew, who is recognised as “first among equals” by 250 million Orthodox Christians, attended Francis’ inauguration as Pope in March last year, the first time in more than 1,000 years that a leader of the Orthodox Church had attended the papal enthronement.

After their addresses in Jerusalem, they will say an ecumenical prayer together. According to Fr Federico Lombardi, the Pope’s press secretary, this represents “the great ecumenical novelty of the trip; it has never happened before. In other words, [it will be] an historic and extraordinary event”.

But the meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew is just a portion of the Pope’s three-day itinerary. In Bethlehem, he is scheduled to eat lunch with Palestinian families at Casa Nova, a Franciscan convent, and greet children at Dheisheh, one of the refugee camps visited by St John Paul II. The political situation will never be far away.

There is no doubt that of the choices in the region, Israel is by far the best place to be a Christian these days. Israelis like to remind visitors that while their neighbours are oppressing Christians in places such as Syria, Egypt and Iraq, Israel can be proud of the religious freedoms and safety it affords its minority religions. Indeed, the Christian ­population is growing, while elsewhere in the Middle East it is diminishing.

Yet, there are an increasing number of hate crimes – so-called “price tag” attacks, which consist of vandalising Muslim and Christian sites with graffiti – that are carried out by right-wing Jewish extremists. Carmi Gillon, who headed the Israeli internal security services, has said that not only are the young people who commit these acts well known to the security services, so are the rabbis who incite them. Meanwhile, Israeli author Amos Oz has called the assailants “Hebrew neo-Nazis”, and Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, the most senior Roman Catholic in the Holy Land, stated that “the unrestrained acts of vandalism poison the atmosphere”, and “are a blight on Israeli democracy”.

Sporadic acts of vandalism have been taking place since 2009 when a mosque was struck in the West Bank. The actions have drawn condemnation by Israeli leaders but few arrests.

The argument that the situation for Christians in Israel is not as bad as it is in Syria or Iraq is hardly adequate. As Rabbi Ron Kronish, a leader in interfaith dialogue in Israel, stated: “We must ask ourselves time and time again, what kind of country do we envision for our children? It is time for the silent majority to wake up and demand action from its Government.”

Another source of tension is the ownership of the Cenacle on Mount Zion, the reputed Upper Room of the Last Supper and Pentecost. Sovereignty over the Cenacle, which was renovated by Franciscans in the fourteenth century, is a highly sensitive issue, for the same building also houses the Tomb of King David. This has resulted in a fierce response from ultra-Orthodox Jews opposing ongoing negotiation between Israel and the Vatican. Adding to the complexity of ownership is that on top of the building is a sixteenth-century Ottoman mosque.

While no official announcement has been made, negotiations between Israel and the Vatican are continuing, and President Shimon Peres told an Italian newspaper during a visit to the Vatican in April 2013 that a compromise had been reached on the Cenacle site. The president said that “99 per cent” of the issues concerning the site had been addressed.

As Pope Francis’ visit approached, the ­situation has heated up. While Israel may not transfer the site to the Vatican outright, it seems likely that it will allow more Christian control over the site. A careful observer of the papal visit may like to pay special attention to the publicity surrounding the Mass that is being celebrated by the Pope there and whether an official agreement is formally announced.

Pope Francis will come to the region with a message of peace, to be achieved through dialogue. Benedict XVI and St John Paul II did this too. Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Christians and Muslims need it, more than ever before.

Dr Edward Kessler is executive director of the Woolf Institute, Cambridge

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