The Pope’s visit to the Holy Land

30 May, 2014 Catholic Herald

There were more than 20 events packed into the official itinerary of Pope Francis’s 55-hour pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but the moment of the most enduring image was not among them. Francis lived up to his reputation for making spontaneous gestures. While driving from the helipad in Bethlehem the white, open-sided Popemobile stopped near Rachel’s Tomb. The Pope stepped out then slowly walked to the graffiti-ridden concrete separation barrier which prevents Palestinians from leaving the occupied West Bank without a permit. There, with his head bowed for four minutes, he prayed beneath the stark red and black graffiti addressed to him, “Pope Bethlehem look like a Warsaw Ghetto”, and calling for a “Free Palestine”. Silently he gave symbolic approval to Palestinian hopes for an independent state, while angering many Israelis.

This detour led indirectly to another unplanned surprise: the blending of Islamic and Christian prayers. The open-air papal Mass for 6,000 Christians in front of Church of the Nativity, was almost drowned by the local muezzin’s amplified call to Muslims to pray. Four loudspeakers from the nearby minaret blared out: “Allah u Akbar, Allah u Akbar, Ash-hadu ana-la Ilaha ill Allah – Ash-hadu ana-la Ilaha ill Allah” (“Allah is Great, Allah is great, and I bear witness that there is no divinity but Allah”). This made the Christian choir to sing the Alleluia louder than usual. As one priest explained: “It was the most wonderful, uplifting sound resonating around Manger Square. And to think that this clash of prayers only happened as the Mass started and finished slightly later than planned.”

Nobody could object to this impromptu mixing of the Crescent and the Cross, as prior to his visit to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories Francis had stressed that his first reason for going was to bring faiths closer together. To emphasise this point he travelled from Jordan to Bethlehem by helicopter with two friends from Buenos Aires, Rabbi Abraham Skorka and the Muslim Omar Abboud. One Catholic, referring to Jerome K Jerome’s book, joked that this was “a bit like ‘three men in a chopper’, instead of three men in a boat”.

As well as these inspired ways of promoting interfaith dialogue, Francis lived up to his reputation for reaching out to ordinary people in large crowds in Jordan and Bethlehem. In Bethlehem he even lunched with five poor Palestinian families suffering under the occupation – an important gesture in a country where there is much poverty. Unemployment is around 25 per cent and the national minimum wage of just under £1.50 an hour is a third of that in Israel.

But in the very birthplace of Christianity Pope Francis disappointed large numbers of his flock. In Jerusalem there was no public Mass, nor was there any opportunity for ordinary people to get anywhere near the white papal cassock and skullcap. Pedestrians and cars were hemmed in as barriers manned with hundreds of police and the Old City rendered a no-go zone. A strict curfew was imposed inside its walls when he went to the Holy Sepulchre to mark the 50th anniversary of the meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople.

“It’s mostly been high ecclesiasticals talking to high ecclesiasticals,” complained one visiting Irish priest. Another priest who was also disappointed by the schedule, reiterated the remarks of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, who suggested that because of the declining number of Christians that the Holy Land, could become a “spiritual Disneyland”.

Over and over again I heard disappointment that the Pope put interfaith dialogue before the members of the Catholic Church. One Arab Christian lawyer summed this feeling up: “On Monday Pope Francis spent nearly five hours at Yad Vashem, the Wailing Wall, Mount Herzl, a meeting with President Peres in the presidential palace, another with prime minister Netanyahu and also met rabbis. Instead, he could have easily hopped on a helicopter and gone to Galilee where the majority of Arab Christians live.” Another grumbled: “We’ve had four papal visits in the past 50 years. Pope Francis is the first who hasn’t gone to Galilee.” Even a Catholic official expressed his surprise at the papal itinerary. “Our Lord is, after all, known as Jesus of Nazareth, not Jesus of Jerusalem,” he said.

Francis’s visit has brought much joy and hope but also controversy. Some national religious Jews have used it as a platform for venting their hostility. Talks between Israeli authorities and the Catholic Church to increase Christian access to the Room of the Last Supper, the Cenacle, situated directly above the site revered as the burial place of King David on Mount Zion, resulted in a storm of ugly protest. Currently, Christians can visit the room, but official Masses can only be celebrated there twice a year. According to some Israelis, making the Cenacle a place of daily or weekly Catholic prayer would prevent Jews from conducting their own services below in the tomb chamber. As one rabbi explained: “Jewish law forbids benefiting from anything – including a structure or shelter – which is used for the purposes of idol worship. The use of effigies and other rituals practiced by the Catholic Church fall under the halakhic definition of idol worship.”

When I was outside the Cenacle five days before the Pope’s arrival, a student from the adjoining Yeshiva angrily told me to leave. “Christians are not welcome,” the student said. He then handed me a pamphlet which contained the following, “The Pope is responsible for the continued deception of millions of people who believe in false G-ds. This very deception led the Elders of Israel to demand that Yeshu be killed 2,000 years ago. In light of this it is clear we Jews do not approve of the Pope’s visit, and moreover, it is even prohibited by Jewish Law… There are those who say that we must hide the truth because it is not politically correct. But those that welcome the Pope are wronging you by hiding the truth and preventing you from repenting to G-d. You have seen the lies perpetrated by the Christian Faith for 2,000 years.”

Tensions on Mount Zion run high but were especially charged whenever I visited. Thankfully, I was spared the humiliating taunts that priests who live nearby routinely endure. Fr Nicodemus of the Dormition Abbey says that as well as being spat on daily, he is sworn at.

Fr Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land, who has been conducting negotiations to increase access, told a press conference that he believes that the protests by hardliners have squashed the chances of Christians getting longer time slots for prayers there – a reasonable request as the whole property had belonged to the Franciscans until it was confiscated by the Ottomans.

Given the tension, it was not surprising that the Israeli government deployed 8,500 police and security personnel in Jerusalem for the visit. Although the papal Mass passed without incident, partly because the Israeli foreign minister and other government spokesmen had made statements to the protesters before the Pope’s arrival, reassuring them that Christians would not be granted more access to the Cenacle. Security services had also detained some 25 protesters for fear they would cause major havoc. Even so, within hours of the Pope’s return to Rome, there was an arson attack on Dormition Abbey. The fire, however, was quickly extinguished, but the visitors’ book was burned and an organ damaged. The police are searching for a suspect who was seen fleeing the site.


Mount Zion is not the only place of anti-Christian protests. Despite Israeli government promises to crackdown on graffiti – known as “price-tag” attacks – sprayed on church and other Christian places, two days before Pope Francis began his tour of the Holy Land, the words insulting Jesus and the Virgin Mary appeared on the walls of a church in the Old City of Beersheba. It was the 14th such incident this year alone. A fortnight before the Pope’s arrival, graffiti was sprayed on the office of the assembly of bishops at the Notre Dame Centre in East Jerusalem, where the Pope hosted a lunch on Monday. An unusually pointed statement posted on the Latin Patriarchate’s website said: “The wave of fanaticism and intimidation against Christians continues.”

The escalation of threats and vandalism have provoked some Christians to complain that the authorities have not been doing enough to counter such religious extremism. Interestingly, when I was here during Benedict XVI’s visit in 2009, there were no such threats, nor was there any trouble surrounding his visit to the Last Supper Room. “One legacy from the Pope’s two days in Bethlehem and Jerusalem may well be more efforts by the government to crack down on anti-Christian acts,” an Arab Christian tailor in East Jerusalem told me.

How effective the sight of the Pope with the Ecumenical Patriarch or with the Islamic leader and the rabbi will be at increasing interfaith relations is difficult to gauge. “We can but wait,” said an Arab Christian chef here in East |Jerusalem. “All I can say is that we – me, my wife my two children – all feel left out. We had no chance to see the Pope, even from a distance, and no tickets for the Mass in Bethlehem. But he gives us all hope for an independent Palestine and an end of the occupation. He did so much just by standing with his head leaning on the separation wall.”