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The usually well-kept Manger Square in Bethlehem is extraordinarily immaculate this week. Palestinian workers rush about securing lighting rigs and speaker stacks as part of last-minute preparations. All of the tree trunks surrounding the square have been painted white.
Come Sunday the square outside the Church of Nativity, the birth place of Jesus, will be packed with up to 9,000 Christians and 1,000 journalists who will attend a mass Pope Francis will lead after he arrives by helicopter from Amman, Jordan.
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 Palestinian Christians from Jerusalem, Ramallah, the Galilee and Gaza. But not all Christians will be able to see the pope during this visit as Father Jamal Khader, head of the Latin Patriarchate Seminary and spokesman for Pope Francis’s visit, said it would be “a big mass in a small space.”
Just a 10-minute car journey separates Bethlehem and Jerusalem, but Israel’s separation wall and a military checkpoint between the two cities create a barrier to Christians wishing to access holy sites in Jerusalem.
Regardless, Pope Francis cannot be driven from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. According to Israel’s rigid security rules, he must be officially welcomed at Ben Gurion Airport — where Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will greet him before he will be flown by helicopter to Jerusalem.
Pope visiting a ‘ghost city’
In preparation for Pope Francis’ visit, Israel has closed the streets of occupied East Jerusalem and placed a curfew on Palestinians of all religions.
“We demand that Palestinian Christians be allowed to be on the streets and that the city of Jerusalem should 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.
Yusef Daher, head of the Jerusalem Inter Church Center, said he had been in a preparatory meeting with Israeli officials ahead of the pope’s visit.
“It will be a ghost city,” he said. “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?’ The Israeli answered, ‘not even cats.’”
Unlike the large audiences that see the pope most Wednesdays in Rome, Palestinians 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.
“The Old City has been closed to some degree since 2006. Even when Christians are given permits to come from the cities in the West Bank to visit Jerusalem at the gates of the Old City they find it’s very difficult to go in and to reach the place of worship. And Christian pilgrims also have this problem especially during holy week.”
Dwindling Christian community
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.
The number of Christians across all of Israel has risen from 34,000 in 1948 to 125,000. However, not all of them are Palestinian.
There are no official population statistics in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
In the Gaza Strip, governed by Islamist group Hamas, the Christian population has halved to around 1,400.
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 U.S. now, was deprived [of] 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 — caused, again, by the occupation.
“One of the problems Christian Palestinians always come back to is really the absence of a political solution,” said Sabella.
This week Israeli authorities placed three Israeli citizens under house arrest during the time of the papal visit, believing Jewish ultra-nationalists would disrupt his trip in some way.
There has been a growing fear that “price tag” attacks against the Christian community would occur during the papal visit. Such attacks are typically carried out by fundamentalist Israelis who aim to exact a price from Palestinian civilians for any action the attackers perceive as threatening to a Jewish-only state.
Daher said, according to a record of “price tag” attacks he has kept over the past five years, the number of such attacks has more than doubled from 10 in 2012 to 22 in 2013.
In early May, vandals wrote “death to Arabs and Christians” in Hebrew on the Vatican’s Notre Dame Centre in Jerusalem’s Old City. Similar graffiti was found on a wall close to the Romanian Orthodox church.
Weeks earlier, attacks occurred against Christians in the Galilee, where a place of worship was vandalized and stones thrown at pilgrims. A radical rabbi also sent a threatening letter to a priest in Nazareth.
“We think that fanatic Jewish individuals or groups are encouraged indirectly at least by the government policy, which is not interested in peace, which is encouraging more settlements during the peace talks and which claims exclusivity over the Old City for the Jewish majority,” Daher said.
Placing faith in Pope Francis
Palestinian Christians are hoping that Pope Francis will use his whirlwind trip to Israel and the occupied territories to draw attention to their plight, but after the collapse of recent peace talks some doubt that will happen.
“We cannot expect much for the pope – but we need a message of justice and peace, or encouragement, of hope for the future,” said Father Khader.
Khoury said she believed it was within the pope’s mandate to condemn Israel’s occupation and ill 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 life, while another people is denied the simple right to live,” Khoury said.
When it comes to justice, “the church has a mandate to actively interfere,” she added.
With an eye towards promoting reconciliation and unification between restive religious groups, Pope Francis is traveling with Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Omar About, a leader of Argentina’s Islamic community — two friends from his time as archbishop of Buenos Aires.