Palestinian Christians find hope in Pope Francis’ visit

C. Holtan Pope Francis by the Wall in Bethlehem 250514

Pope Francis waves as he makes his way past the separation wall and to Manger Square in Bethlehem. Photo EAPPI/C. Holtan.

by EAPPI team

From 24 to 26 May, Pope Francis made a 3-day tour to the Holy Land, making stops in Jordan, Palestine, and Israel.  In Jerusalem, the Pope’s visit was clouded when Israeli security forces used violence against Palestinian Christians marching toward the passage road of the Pope to welcome him.  Yet, a peaceful and celebratory visit to Bethlehem and Pope Francis’ acknowledgement of the difficult reality of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict left many Palestinian Christians with a feeling of hope.

Bethlehem: Pope Francis makes iconic stop at separation wall and calls for peace based on justice

In Bethlehem, Pope Francis made an unexpected stop, stepping down from his vehicle where he rested his forehead against the separation wall, which cuts off Bethlehem from Jerusalem, and said a silent prayer. On the wall in the background, someone had sprayed a graffiti message: “Pope we need someone to speak about justice.” Photos from this stop have now become iconic across the media. Bishop Munib Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land, commended the Pope for being willing to acknowledge the reality of the situation in Palestine.

The Pope steps down from his vehicle to say a prayer at the separation wall in Bethlehem. Photo EAPPI/E. Mutschler.

The Pope steps down from his vehicle to say a prayer at the separation wall in Bethlehem. Photo EAPPI/E. Mutschler.

“I think that leaders like Pope Francis, when they visit, should not just meet officials, but should see the reality. The reality is that there is a wall that separates Palestinians and Israelis, Palestinians and Palestinians, and Palestinians from their land. Pope Francis, I believe, prayed that this wall would no longer exist and I say this prayer with him!” Bishop Younan commented in an interview.

From his stop at the separation wall, Pope Francis made his way to attend a mass in Manger Square outside the Nativity Church. In his address the over 8,000 Christians gathered, he commented:

“I want to emphasize my sincere conviction that the time has come to put an end to this situation that is becoming increasingly unacceptable.”

He affirmed that everyone will benefit from “the need to intensify efforts and measures to facilitate a stable peace based on justice, recognition of the rights of each individual and mutual confidence.” Interestingly, the nativity mural behind the Pope’s seat depicted baby Jesus lying under a keffiyeh style cloth.

The Pope spoke at the Mass in Bethlehem in front of a mural of the baby Jesus under a cloth styled like a Keffiyeh, a traditional Middle Eastern headscarf. Photo EAPPI/L. Hilton.

The Pope spoke at the Mass in Bethlehem in front of a mural of the baby Jesus under a cloth styled like a Keffiyeh, a traditional Middle Eastern headscarf. Photo EAPPI/L. Hilton.

Bishop Younan reflected on the feeling of hope Palestinians felt after the Pope visited Bethlehem:

“The Mass gave the Palestinian people – both Christians and Muslims – a feeling of hope. To see that the President, the Prime Minister, the Ministers, Heads of Churches, all of these people attending, with locals, with people from Galilee, with people from all over the world – over 10,000 people in Manger Square – raised the moral of the Palestinian people. While the Palestinian people are under occupation, we need a leader to show that the world is listening and hearing us and I believe that Pope Francis showed this to our people. There is a leader who is listening to us and meeting with us.”

Jerusalem: Palestinian Christians arrested an faced excessive force when welcoming the Pope

In Jerusalem, the experience of Palestinian Christians was not a peaceful celebration as it was for those in Bethlehem. At least 3 Palestinian Christians who joined a procession to welcome Pope Francis during his visit to Jerusalem were arrested for a brief period by Israeli security forces when the Pope arrived on Sunday. Others were injured due to use of physical force by Israeli police.

A young woman holds a woman who was injured by Israeli security forces. Photos EAPPI/A. Macarimbang.

A young woman holds a woman who was injured by Israeli security forces. Photos EAPPI/A. Macarimbang.

Israeli security forces ordered several changes to the planned route, resulting in confusion, overcrowding, and tension.  EAPPI human rights monitors reported that Israeli police began to use metal barriers to push the crowd back. Two men who became upset were beaten and arrested by Israeli police.  Another girl was injured when she was crushed in the pushing back of the crowd.

“The pre-planned route allowed us to process from New Gate to Jaffa Gate,” explained Yusef Daher, Executive Director of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Centre. “During the time before the Pope arrived at 6 pm, Israeli authorities rerouted the procession to Mamilla Mall. Then back to the traffic lights near Jaffa Gate. This continued. As soon as we arrived at one destination, they rerouted us back to another. Eventually, the procession was cornered in the streets.”

When the procession arrived to Jaffa gate after the first rerouting, Israeli police did not allow any Palestinian Christians to enter Jaffa gate.  They formed a chain to block the people from entering, which caused stress and anger among those waiting to greet the Pope.

“Even when the situation calmed down, many Christians were disappointed that they were not able to welcome the Pope,” described EAPPI human rights monitors.

Many Jerusalem Christians expressed their wish to welcome the Pope with the same freedom as Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem:

“They are not treating us like humans,” expressed one woman who was a part of the Jerusalem procession. “You can see we are peaceful people. We are holding our prayers in our hearts. We want to pray and welcome the pope that’s all!”

EAPPI’s Local Programme Coordinator commented: “I noticed a stark contrast between police actions toward the Christians at Jaffa Gate and police action two days later when thousands of Israelis gathered in Sheikh Jarrah for Jerusalem Day.  Even though the latter group was much larger and they were loudly singing and celebrating, Israeli security forces did not attempt to hold back the crowd. On the contrary, they seemed to protect the marchers as several police vehicles followed the procession around the Palestinian neighbourhood at 3 o’clock in the night.”

Pope Francis offers hope and challenges all to move beyond their entrenched positions

Jerusalem Christians immediately wrote an open letter to the Pope describing their situation. The Pope received the message before he left the country and during a service at the Garden of Gethsemane responded with the addition of these lines to his original text:

“I wish to extend my heartfelt greetings to all Christians in Jerusalem: I would like to assure them that I remember them affectionately and that I pray for them, being well aware of the difficulties they experience in this city. I urge them to be courageous witnesses of the passion of the Lord but also of his resurrection, with joy and hope.”

EAPPI’s Local Programme  Coordinator reiterated this message of hope: “I am amazed by the way the Pope identified with each faith community and political counterpart on its own terms but also gently challenged all beyond entrenched positions. His meditation at Yad Vashem was a case in point. Without taking anything away from the horror and atrocity of the Holocaust, his “Adam, where are you?” both embraced and went beyond the victims of that particular tragedy to include all who suffer atrocities, and all who commit them today.”

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