The Pope’s visit to the Holy Land

Pope Francis visits the Holy Land

Pope Francis is making a whirlwind tour through the Middle East while trying to avoid any political minefields – yet even with the best of intentions he seems to be stepping in quite a few of them.

First, a précis of his schedule:

Francis kicked off his much-anticipated Middle East visit on Saturday in Jordan, where he called on the international community to heed the plight of Syrians affected by the civil war there. Now he heads to Israel and the Palestinian territories for a series of meetings and stopovers at various sites, some of which are fraught with political significance.

Ahead of the visit, the pope has received a lot of love, and no small amount of politics, from both Israel and the Palestinians.

The pontiff is heading to Bethlehem by helicopter from Amman for a series of religious events and meetings with Palestinian leaders and children. In the afternoon, he will come to Israel, launching a day of visits to religious sites and meetings with Israeli leaders.

The pope’s schedule Sunday in the Palestinian territories, as provided to journalists by Israel’s Government Press Office, is as follows. Based on the language, it seems safe to assume the schedule was originally written by Vatican officials:

8:30 – Departure for Bethlehem by helicopter from Queen Alia International Airport in Amman.

9:30 – Arrival ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Bethlehem, Courtesy visit to the Chairman of the Palestinian Authority.

10:00 – Meeting with Palestinian Authority leaders. Discourse of the Holy Father.

11:00 – Holy Mass in Manger Square in Bethlehem. Homily of the Holy Father. Regina Coeli prayer. Allocution of the Holy Father.

15:00 – Private visit to the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

15:45 – Farewell ceremony from the Palestinian Authority at the Bethlehem helipad.

16:00 – Departure by helicopter from the Bethlehem helipad for Ben Gurion International Airport in Israel.

The Pope stepped on his first mine at the Security Barrier outside Bethlehem where he made an unscheduled stop to pray.

Pope Francis prays at the security barrier

The picture of the Pope praying at the barrier is going to make anti-Israel fodder for years to come. It almost seems like a parody of Jews praying at the Kotel, as both Judge Dan and Varda Epstein of Israellycool points out.  Read both articles to see how the scene was set up in advance by Palestinians.

A second trap was laid out by the Latin Patriarchate in Bethlehem who chose which families would lunch with the Pope – they were chosen in order to make Israel look bad and not because they were particularly poor. As Elder of Ziyon explains:

From the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem site:

An interview with Bishop William Shomali, Auxiliary Bishop of Jerusalem, about the families who will have lunch with Pope Francis in Bethlehem after Mass in Manger Square.

1 – Why did the Pope choose to lunch with Christian families? What is his reason for doing so?
Pope Francis wants to spend a little time with the poor families in the Bethlehem and their children to listen to them, permitting them to feel his closeness and tenderness. He did not want to have lunch with the cardinals, bishops and politicians, but with poor families. It took time to understand the reasons for this gesture. It really makes the Pope admired: how Jesus wants to stay close to the poor.

2 – How were the families chosen who will share the meal?
The Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land, which oversaw the organization of the entire trip of the Holy Father appointed a committee for the task of choosing. The Committee established criteria for identifying “categories” of poverty. Each family was then selected to represent a certain category of need. The poor who have no daily bread or living on the street have not been selected.

Oh, okay. The pope asks to have lunch with the poor and the committee deliberately excludes the truly poor.

So who do they choose instead?

Our poor are those who suffer for humanitarian reasons, political and social.


A family from Ikrit, a village in northern Galilee that was evacuated and razed in 1948 by the Israeli Army. […]
Another family from the group of 58 families who have land in Cremisan area of Beit Jala. According to the planned route of the separation wall built by Israel, the land will be on the other side of the wall and therefore inaccessible for the owners. There are ongoing negotiations with the legal authorities that we hope will have a positive outcome.


Another family has a son sentenced to life imprisonment, another a son exiled to Gaza for political reasons. Another one comes from the Gaza Strip, which is a big prison. These are the families selected for this occasion.

5 – Pope Francis, where he visits, always wants to share a meal with simple people, the poor and marginalized. What are the lessons for the Church in Jerusalem?
This is a lesson for us bishops and priests. We need to get closer to the suffering people of God, and not live isolated in our homes. The Pope says we are always to go out, to go to the others, to go in search of the sheep and not wait until the sheep seeks the shepherd. This is a great example for us. The Pope will not see all the misery of the Holy Land. He only meets five families, and giving us a good boost, it inspires us to continue our mission.

Gee, what mission is that? Ignoring the homeless?

The cynicism of the Latin Patriarchate is quite breathtaking. They are not even apologizing or hiding it either!

Talking about cynicism, the PA arranged an art exhibit especially for the Pope – a particularly nasty one where they merged classical paintings of Jesus with contemporary pictures of Palestinians replacing the form of Jesus – via Palestinian Media Watch:

The exhibit consists of visual displays merging classical paintings of biblical scenes with photos of Palestinians and have been “designed by the Palestinian Museum at the request of the Presidential Higher Committee for Church Affairs.” [Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, May 20, 2014]

As Palestinian Media Watch has documented, the PA has misrepresented Jesus for years, claiming he was not a Judean as in Christian tradition, but rather a “Palestinian,” thereby claiming a Palestinian history dating back to the time of Jesus. Mahmoud Abbas recently said Jesus was “a Palestinian messenger.” This exhibit reinforces the pretense that Jesus was a Palestinian by visually merging the image of Jesus in classical art with pictures of Palestinians.

The Deposition, (1507), which shows the dead Jesus being carried to his tomb. In the Palestinian version, Jesus’ legs have been replaced by a photo of the wounded legs of a Palestinian, being carried away by a man as an Israeli soldier looks on.

PA photoshop of Palestinian as Jesus

In Murillo’s Christ healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda, (1670), in which Christ is depicted curing a suffering man near the pool, the scenery of the healing pool has been replaced by a photo of a Palestinian sitting by Israel’s separation wall.

More PA photoshopping

If I were a Christian, even a non-religious one, I would be highly offended at the depiction of my god as a mere human, and a violent terrorist one at that.  I would like to say that I fully expect to hear condemnations of this repulsive antisemitic “art” exhibit from higher Christian representatives if not from the Vatican itself. However, as usual, I will not be holding my breath.

I would also expect to hear condemnations of the exhibit from Israeli and/or Jewish officials. The supersessionist nature of the Palestinians depicting Jesus as the “original Palestinian” are outrageous (and again, should be highly offensive to Christians), historically false (Jesus was a Jew not an Arab) and antisemitic in intent and in effect.  But I expect nothing from our weak-kneed leaders.

It has been widely noted and commented upon that the Pope reversed the usual itinerary of foreign dignitaries by going to the Palestinian Authority first, before visiting Israel:

Previous popes always came to the West Bank after first arriving in Tel Aviv, Israel. Francis, however, landed at a Bethlehem helipad from Jordan aboard a Jordanian helicopter and immediately headed into an official welcoming ceremony and meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Standing alongside Abbas, Francis declared: “The time has come to put an end to this situation which has become increasingly unacceptable.” He said both sides needed to make sacrifices to create two states, with internationally recognized borders, based on mutual security and rights for everyone.


Palestinian officials have hailed Francis’ decision to arrive first in Bethlehem, rather than Tel Aviv, and to refer to the “state of Palestine.” In its official program, the Vatican referred to Abbas as the president of the “state of Palestine,” and his Bethlehem office as the “presidential palace.”

“The fact that he is coming straight from Jordan to Bethlehem, without going through Israel,” is a tacit recognition of a Palestinian state, said Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian Christian who is a senior official in the Palestine Liberation Organization.

And how could PA “President” Mahmoud Abbas resist moaning about Israel, as usual?

Abbas listed a series of complaints against Israel, including continued settlement construction, the plight of thousands of Palestinian prisoners, Israel’s control of east Jerusalem, the Palestinians’ would-be capital and Israel’s construction of the “ugly wall” that encircles Bethlehem.

The sorry state of the Christians in the Palestinian Authority was also to be addressed:

In addition to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Francis is expected to give a word of encouragement to Palestinian Christians, whose numbers have been dwindling as the conflict drags on.

Currently, Christians are roughly 2 percent of the population of the Holy Land, down from about 10 percent at the time of Israel’s establishment in 1948. In Bethlehem, they are less than one third of the population, down from 75 percent a few decades ago.

“I want the pope to see the situation of the Christians,” said Salib Safar, 23, who studies hotel management in Bethlehem and was in Manger Square for Sunday’s Mass. “The wall (security barrier), the occupation, the pressure on our lives.”

Hmm, and I suppose that Palestinian Muslim persecution of Christians in Bethlehem is just a figment of our imagination. It simply must be the fault of the Jews Israelis. It always isn’t it?

On the more positive side, the Pope’s visit to the Holy Land is more to do with intra-church relations than Middle East politics. The high point, as far as the church is concerned, was the unity meeting held this evening at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Some background on the schism:

The summit is aimed at bridging rifts between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, Vatican officials say. The denominations differ on theology and liturgy, and they celebrate Christmas and other holidays on different days, posing dilemmas for numerous Catholic-Orthodox mixed couples in the Holy Land and elsewhere.


Territorial fights have gone on at the Holy Sepulcher for centuries, with various rulers of the Holy Land transferring property rights back and forth to their favored sects.

In 1852, the Ottoman authorities governing the Holy Land decreed the church’s power-sharing arrangements could not be changed. Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian clergy govern the Sepulcher building, with lesser rights accorded to Copts, Assyrians and Ethiopians.

The status quo was not written down until 1929, when the British took control of the Holy Land and British officer Lionel George Archer Cust sat in the church and documented what he saw. His document, still followed today, outlines who gets to rings the bells first, who can hang paintings in another’s chapel, who cleans the staircase and a dizzying list of other rules.


Franciscan Catholics prop up an enormous steel step ladder near the church’s main entrance for three months each year between Lent and the feast of Corpus Christi, because the status quo pact allows them to do so to light high-hanging oil lamps –€” even though the oil lamps haven’t been there since 1938.

Like a flag, the ladder stands there to assert sovereignty. It will still be there when the pope and Orthodox spiritual leader arrive.

“You would think they would have moved a big, ugly-looking ladder,” said Anna Koulouris, a communications adviser with the rival Greek Orthodox church.

And I thought shul politics were complicated!

The Times of Israel has a live-blog (now closed) of the Pope’s meetings throughout the day including the various speeches and  a slightly irreverent report of the Church unity meeting:

As Pope Francis spends the morning in Bethlehem, and Israel makes the final preparations for his arrival in Israel in the afternoon, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tells the cabinet that Francis’s visit is “an opportunity to present to the world the true Israel, an advanced, modern, tolerant Israel, in practice the only state in the Middle East which ensures complete freedom of religion to members of every religion, [which] protects holy places and guarantees the rights of all — Jews, Muslims, Christians, all.”


The Muslim call to prayer from the Mosque of Omar on Manger Square in Bethlehem interrupted Pope Francis’ mass outside the Church of the Nativity.

According to Israel Radio reporter Gal Berger, the Christian crowd responded to the muezzin’s call with whistles and shouts, and the choral music was turned up in order to drown it out. Army Radio reports the calls of “God is Great” in Arabic were met with cheers of “Viva Il Papa” by the Christians.


The Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Ra’i, whose participation in the pope’s visit was a source of controversy in the Arab world, will not be joining Francis on his helicopter journey to Ben-Gurion Airport and during his stay in Israel, Nasser Atta of ABC News reports.


The peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians having collapsed last month, Pope Francis calls on President Shimon Peres and his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas to join him in a prayer for peace at the Vatican.

As commenter Rob Harris notes on my previous post, it is a bit of a chutzpah of the Pope to invite Shimon Peres, who is a figurehead and not a politician and is in any case soon stepping down, instead of PM Binyamin Netanyahu.

Continuing the report, I give credit to Pope Francis for the following:

Speaking to Palestinian children in Bethlehem, the pontiff urges the kids never to “abandon hope, and always look forward.”

“You don’t solve violence with violence,” he says. “Peace is achieved with hard work and dignity.” 

After he landed at Ben Gurion airport, Shimon Peres and Binyamin Netanyahu greeted the Pope:

Shimon Peres, Pope Francis and Binyamin Netanyahu at Ben Gurion Airport

Speaking in Hebrew, Peres thanks the pope “for your warm and loving attitude to the Jewish people.”

Back in English, in a minor slip, Peres calls Francis “Your Highness” instead of “Your Holiness” at one point, but nobody seems to mind.

The president condemns those who “shot innocent people in the Jewish Museum in Brussels [on Saturday] only because they thought they were Jewish.”

“This is a manifestation that poisons wells and cannot be accepted,” he says.


Our hand is stretched out in peace and will continue to be stretched out in peace, and we shall seek the right path to achieve it,” Peres says.


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomes Pope Francis, and praises recent good relations between the Holy See and the Jewish people. He says that when Pope Francis lights the torch at Yad Vashem on Monday, it will be an additional expression that anti-Semitism is a crime against humanity and the divine.

“In the heart of the Middle East, the turbulent and violent Middle East… Israel is an island of tolerance,” Netanyahu says, lauding the country’s tolerance for all faiths.

Netanyahu says he is “committed to maintaining the status quo at the holy sites of Muslims, Christians and Jews.”

“Our hand is outstretched for peace to anyone who will take it,” Netanyahu says.


Pope Francis says he comes to Israel as a pilgrim, and voices his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The pope condemns Saturday’s shooting in Brussels that left three dead, including two Israelis, calling the incident a  “brutal” and “criminal attack of anti-Semitic hatred.” The Catholic leader offers his prayers for the victims and wounded.

The focus of his speech (full text here) is on reaching peace between Israel and the Palestinians, underlining the “universal value” of Jerusalem as a city of peace. He says the sides should never stop seeking solutions to complex problems between the Israelis and Palestinians.


Pope Francis is greeted on touchdown at the Mt. Scopus helipad by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, city officials, the president of the Hebrew University, the head of Hadassah Hospital and children of Jerusalem. Some of the children are from a school for both Jewish and Arab students.

Barkat gives His Holiness a sample of earth from the Holy Land and some fresh fruit grown in Israel, and a plaque with a reproduction of the Siloam Inscription, which he describes as proof of “our mutual future of the city of Jerusalem.”

And now we come to the main point of the Pope’s visit: his meeting with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I:

As night falls on the Old City of Jerusalem, Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I step into the courtyard outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the shared site holy to all Christians.

Having waited for over an hour for the Christian leaders to make it to the basilica in the heart of the Christian Quarter, the gathered dignitaries breathe a sigh of relief as the leaders of the two largest Christian sects enter the yard.

Francis and Bartholomew, leaders of Catholic and Eastern Christianity, embrace and stand side by side before walking into the basilica accompanied by their respective subordinates.


The Ecumencial Patriarch Bartholomew tweets a photo of himself and Pope Francis at their first meeting today

Francis and Bartholomew are attending services in the Holy Sepulchre. (Must confess it’s all Greek to me.)

Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I have signed an agreement in which “they pledged to continue on the path towards unity between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches,” Vatican Radio reports. “Christian blood is the same,” Francis tells those gathered at the Holy Sepulchre.

For more commentary from the Israeli and Jewish point of view, stay tuned for my next post.

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