This weekend, all eyes will be on Pope Francis, the popular Argentinian pontiff, during his short visit to Jordan, the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and Israel. All will be wondering whether he will be offering any reconciliatory gestures between Israelis and Palestinians. There will also be concerns over his safety since he had reportedly refused an Israeli suggestion to ride in an armoured vehicle in the wake of riots and threats from ultra-rightists within the Jewish community.
The official purpose of his 24-hour visit, starting on Saturday, is to heal a centuries-old rift between the Catholic and Orthodox churches but, needless to say, both Palestinians and Israelis are also anxious to detect any steps he may take to help end their 66-year conflict. The Palestinians are elated that his first stop in the Holy Land will be in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, where he will be meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. After the meeting, he will celebrate a mass in front of the Church of Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, before visiting a nearby Palestinian refugee camp. “Knowing who he is, and his sensitivity for all those who suffer, I am sure he will say something defending all ... including the Palestinians who live under occupation,” Father Jamal Khader of the Latin patriarchate in occupied Jerusalem said. He also felt that the pope’s trip to Bethlehem was “a direct sign of recognising Palestine”.
Ziad Bandak, the Palestinian president’s adviser on Christian affairs, had said that “this visit will help us in supporting our struggle to end the longest occupation in history”. For Israel, he continued, it was a political slight that “the pope will begin his visit in Palestine and not Israel”. The visit to occupied Jerusalem — the fourth by a pontiff in 50 years and only a few months after Francis was named pope and subsequently chosen by Time magazine as the ‘Person of the Year’ — will also be remembered for including, for the first time, members of other faiths — Muslims and Jews — in the official papal delegation — Omar Abboud, a leader of Argentina’s Islamic community, and Rabbi Abraham Skorka; a gesture described by a Vatican spokesman to show “normality” of having friends of other faiths.
But disappointingly, 14 attacks against the church by suspected far-right Israelis have been reported in the past year and several have been carried out last month, including a death threat daubed in Hebrew at the Assembly of Bishops at Notre Dame Centre in occupied East Jerusalem. These attacks have become known as “price tags,” as explained by Associated Press — a reference by ultranationalist Jews to make the Israel government “pay” for any curbs on Jewish colonies in Palestinian land. “This wave of extremist actions of terror are surely of grave concern to all reasonable persons,” said Fouad Twal, the Patriarch of occupied Jerusalem on a recent procession in the City of Haifa — home to thousands of Israeli Arab church faithfuls. Other reports also said that mosques were equally targeted. Several churches in occupied Jerusalem have been defaced with anti-Christian graffiti in recent weeks. The Huffington Post reported that some were calling these actions as a “wave of fanaticism and intimidation against Christians” in Israel. It is disturbing that these hostile actions were hardly reported in American newspapers, especially those published in Washington and New York.
The Economist asked in a recent edition whether occupied Jerusalem’s bustling Old City (occupied East Jerusalem) will be turned into a ghost town when Pope Francis comes to the Holy Land. It noted that while some Palestinians are opening up the streets of Bethlehem and providing the pope with an open car when he visits their side of the biblical land, Israel is taking no chances. It is planning a strict permit regime with the public kept at arm’s length behind a security cordon.
“The pope wants to see the people,” protested a papal spokesman, reported the Economist. “But Christians won’t be able to see him ... Israel is turning the holy sites into a military base.”
And last, but not the least, here is some shocking news published in Mondoweiss.net, a progressive Jewish website, recently: “In a sign of roiling tensions, [occupied] Jerusalem police — at the request of municipal officials — asked a Franciscan centre just inside the Old City walls, to take down a large banner welcoming Pope Francis in English, Arabic and Hebrew, informed sources reported.”
Now, it is definitely time for the Israeli pot to stop calling the Palestinian kettle black and learn how to keep its house in order.
George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He can be contacted at email@example.com