by James M. Wall
A friend writes from Bethlehem:
His Holiness will arrive in Jordan at the end of this week, then cross the river to Israel-Palestine and spend a few more days here.
Sad to say, he will not visit Gaza.
It would have been a huge encouragement for the people of the region especially the Christians in Gaza, and provided a good “media op” to highlight the devastation and on-going problems inside the prison that is Gaza.
To be fair to Pope Benedict XVI, he does not have total control over his May 8-14 travel itinerary which begins in Amman, where he plans to visit a mosque. From Jordan, the Pope will cross the Jordan River into the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel.
On the Israeli side of the river he will be met by Israeli President Shimon Peres, who will serve as his constant companion and guide before he returns to Rome.
My Bethlehem friend reports that the 82-year-old Pontiff’s visit has provided some surface improvements for the town where Jesus was born.
Bethlehem has never looked so good! The municipality has received funding to spruce up the city. New street lamps have been installed that have not worked since the beginning of the Intifada in 2002. Storefronts all along Manger Street have had the posters of [Palestinian] martyrs removed and have been repainted. The curbs have been painted with black and white or red and white striping denoting parking or no parking areas (not that anyone pays attention to that!)
On the day the pope comes no one will be allowed out on the streets anyway. This will be purely a media event. The local police will once again be posted on the roofs of buildings and line the streets with weapons aimed high searching for anyone who dares to even look out their windows.
Unfortunately the local Christians to whom the pope, or “al Baba” as he is referred to here, will not be allowed to participate in the events. Dignitaries, politicians, clerical hierarchy and even Jewish ministers of state will accompany the pope, but for “security” reasons the local Christians will be sidelined.
On his pilgrimage the Pope will visit the D’heisha Refugee Camp in Bethlehem and, of course, he will pay a ceremonial visit to the Church of the Nativity. Word from a source in Jerusalem is that “the Israelis moved the refugee camp visit from the Aida Camp to D’heisha, because they don’t want the Wall and a Guard tower to be in the tv images that get transmitted.”
But the Pope will not visit Gaza, easily the world’s largest refugee camp, now under the control of Hamas, where Gaza officials would no doubt have been more than delighted to welcome the Pope.
In Gaza he not only would have seen the aftermath of Israel’s most recent 22-day invasion, and experienced the suffering of a people confined behind prison walls, but Hamas officials could have taken him to the site in Gaza where Samson rebelled against his captors by pulling down the walls of the temple of Dagon (Judges 13-16).
The Pope’s visit to Bethlehem will require him to enter and depart the city through an oppressive checkpoint used by all residents and visitors, even Popes. Unless that is, Israeli authorities decide to open the city’s ancient entrance gate, closed since the Israeli “security” wall was built surrounding the town where Jesus was born. The gate normally swings opens only for two Easter processionals.
However, the Pope enters the city, he will not escape another ugly reality: At intervals along the wall are those carefully placed guard towers (like the one pictured above), where armed soldiers keep watch over the inhabitants, by night, and by day.
Donald Macintyre describes what else the Pope will not see when he enters and leaves Bethlehem.
It is 5:45 am, just a few minutes before sunrise, when the bottleneck at the entrance to the narrow, fenced-in checkpoint path in Bethlehem is at its worst. There is scuffling when the tempers of the men, many of whom have been up since 3am, begin to fray as they compete to squeeze into the alley to queue for a lengthy series of Israeli security checks of their IDs, work permits, and biometric palm prints. . . .
Though he will enter the nativity city through the wall at this same Gilo checkpoint during his five-day trip to the Holy Land next week, this is a scene that Pope Benedict will not see. By the time he arrives around 8am, the thousands of workers will have long gone; the food vendors will have packed up their barrows, along with the coffee urns, sesame loaves and tins of tuna – up to 75p cheaper than in Israel – that the men sometimes stop to buy for lunch. . . .
At the time of the last Papal visit in 2000, there were around 140,000 West Bankers working in Jerusalem. But since the beginning of the second intifada only 26,000 have permits to do so.
The National Catholic Reporter’s John L. Allen Jr. is travelling on the papal plane to cover Benedict XVI’s visit. Before leaving for Rome this week, he wrote in his pre-trip analysis that Benedict’s trip
represents the first opportunity to “road test” the prospects for collaboration between the United States and the Vatican with regard to a critical shared objective – peace in the Middle East. That’s an especially live prospect given the likelihood that Benedict and Obama will meet in person shortly afterwards, on the occasion of the G-8 summit in Italy in July.
This storyline may be particularly beguiling in view of a notable coincidence: Benedict’s trip to the Holy Land wraps up on May 15, just two days before Obama’s much-ballyhooed May 17 commencement address at the University of Notre Dame.