As Pope Francis’ controversial visit to Israel and the West Bank nears—he arrives via helicopter in Bethlehem on May 25th—Israeli authorities are placing occupied East Jerusalem under curfew. A two-kilometre area around the Holy Sepulchre and the Gethsemane garden, at the foot of the Mount of Olives is cordoned off and many Christians are deeply unhappy because they will be prevented from seeing the Pope.
Sami El-Yousef of the Papal Agency for Middle East relief and development told the Middle East Monitor on Thursday:
“My worry and our concern is that we, residents of the old city, will not be allowed to see the pope, let alone the Palestinian Christians in the West Bank having permits or not having permits…We are promised curfew status basically, the roads the Pope goes through will be empty, the streets full of Israeli security.”
A collective group of Christians from East Jerusalem sent a message to the Apostolic Delegate in Jerusalem and Palestine expressing their discontent:
“We are aware that the Holy Mass will be held in Bethlehem for the Palestinian faithful, yet we believe that as the indigenous Jerusalem population and descendants of the first Christians, meeting our Fathers will be hindered in Jerusalem. We see attempts by the Israeli occupation to impose a curfew on the streets including the Christian quarter during the visit. The curfew is yet another attempt by the occupying power to deny our existence. It is unacceptable for the Pope to pass along the narrow streets of the Christian Quarter, yet find devoid of any signs of life and the faithful. According to international law, East Jerusalem is an occupied city, and we, as the local Church communities, are the hosts of the Holy Fathers in our city. We do not want to be excluded from a historic religious event, and want to offer our good will and cooperation towards the visit’s success.”
But not being able to see the pope is just one dimension of the controversy. While the Pope’s visit to the Holy Land is a purely “religious trip”, the political dimension cannot be separated from the religious one.
“The Vatican is an independent state and as its head, the pope is a political man,” said a monk from a long-established religious order in East Jerusalem who declined to be identified for fear Israel would not renew his visa.
“Like many, I am very worried about the implications of the visit. I don’t believe that the Vatican has really understood that Jerusalem is cut in half,” he said, adding that in 1993 when the Vatican agreed to Israel’s request to be recognized, in return Israel was to guarantee the right for Christians to be able to retain their property, an agreement which was signed, but never ratified.
“It is the only time in my life that I wrote to the Pope,” said another monk. “I told him that if he wasn’t going to defend the rights of the Christians in the region then he should not come. There is no veritable religious freedom here.”
The Christians in the area are descendants of the world’s oldest communities. According to Israeli statistics, roughly 154,000 Christians live in Israel. An estimated 50,000 additional Christians live in the Palestinian territories, for the most part in Bethlehem, Ramallah and occupied East Jerusalem, with 3,000 or so in the Gaza Strip.In violation of international law, Israel has been building a ring of settlements around East Jerusalem in order to separate the area from the West Bank, as well a isolating it.
One priest I spoke to said that while he approved of the Pope’s likely decision to open up the Vatican’s Holocaust-era archives, Palestinians find it difficult to accept that Pope Francis will be visiting the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem, built just opposite Deir Yassin, where Palestinian villagers were massacred by the Irgun in 1948, and the depopulated village of Ein Karem, thought to be the birthplace of John the Baptist, where Christian and Muslim Palestinians were evicted in 1948 in the valley just below.
From the calm of the centuries-old monastery, one monk was very clear about the visit: “If this is not to support indigenous and local Christians and obtain recognition for their fundamental freedom of religion, expression, residence, work and construction, then such a visit is seen as a shot in the dark, a deep regret and, more importantly, an abdication of the basic responsibilities of a religious leader who is also a head of state.”
Peace could prevail, he said, “if Jerusalem was indeed managed independently as a true open city for its believers—the three monotheistic religions each of which has its place of prayer…but peace will not come as long as the Israeli and Palestinian governments each claim the Holy City as their capital. The international community has never endorsed such a claim in Jerusalem.”