Daily Israel Report

Pope Will 'Recognize Palestine, Call to End Occupation'

PA, Arab Christian officials say pope is starting his visit in Bethlehem in order to send a political message.
By Ari Yashar
First Publish: 5/19/2014, 12:10 PM

Pope Francis with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas
Pope Francis with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas
Reuters

Palestinian Authority (PA) and Arab Christian sources are already celebrating Pope Francis's visit to Israel starting next Sunday, saying his choice to begin the trip directly in PA-held Bethlehem is meant to "recognize Palestine" and "oppose the occupation."

"He is taking a helicopter directly from Jordan to Palestine - to Bethlehem. It's a kind of sign of recognizing Palestine," Father Jamal Khader of the Latin patriarchate in Jerusalem told AFP.

The claims that his trip will begin in a "recognition of Palestine" comes amid reports from February by Rabbi Sergio Bergman, a member of the Argentinian parliament and close friend of Pope Francis, who said that the pope intends to define himself as the "Che Guevera of the Palestinians" and support their "struggle and rights" during his visit.

In Bethlehem the pope is to travel in an open-top car and meet with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, holding "mass" prayer services there instead of in Jerusalem in what has been called a show of support for the PA.

It has been noted that the pope has been remarkably tight-lipped over the violent persecution of Christians in Bethlehem, instead choosing to condemn alleged Jewish "price tag" vandalism.

After the "mass" services, the pope is to visit a nearby "refugee camp."

"Knowing who he is, and his sensitivity for all those who suffer, I am sure that he will say something defending all those who are suffering, including the Palestinians who live under occupation," Khader said.

A visit to "end the occupation"

The political aspects of the visit were highlighted by Hind Khoury, a former PA minister for Jerusalem affairs, who said "everything will be highly charged politically."

"This visit will help us in supporting our struggle to end the longest occupation in history," said Ziyyad Bandak, Abbas's adviser for Christian affairs.

Bandak noted that the pope "will have a lunch with Palestinians, with families suffering from the occupation...then he will visit Dheishe refugee camp to witness the suffering of Palestinian refugees."

The fact that "the pope will begin his visit in Palestine and not Israel," as Bandak put it, was meant as a slight to the Jewish state according to the PA official, who added "I know that Israeli officials are not happy with this decision."

"We welcome this visit and consider it as support for the Palestinian people, and confirmation from the Vatican of the need to end the occupation," concluded Bandak.

Israeli officials presenting 'our point of view' - on Iran

On the other hand, an Israeli official speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity said "the very fact of the visit is a success," noting the Tourism Ministry had reported an anticipated 10% rise in Christian tourism over the coming year thanks to the visit.

However, a great portion of the pope's time spent not under PA-controlled areas is reportedly planned to be spent in largely Arab-populated neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem.

The pope is set to meet Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the Vatican-owned Notre Dame complex located on the "seam" between Jewish and Arab neighborhoods.

In the meeting "we shall be able to explain to him, from our point of view, what's happening politically in the region," an Israeli official said.

The official did not specifically note that those explanations would include a counter to the narrative of "occupation," pushed so strongly by the Arab sources speaking about the visit, instead saying simply "we shall explain to him the Iranian threat."

At least one Jerusalem official does not plan to greet the pope. Councilman Aryeh King announced he would not attend an official welcoming of the pope unless he "will bring in his suitcase the treasures of the Jewish people that were stolen by his predecessors, treasures that today are located in the Vatican's basement."

Arutz Sheva recently reported plans to dramatically increase the number of days on which Christian services are held at the complex of King David's Tomb, which holds the "Last Supper Hall," from one day per year to 60. These plans have been officially denied by the Israeli government.

Earlier reports that parts of the compound would be handed over to the Vatican were also denied by the Chief Sephardic Rabbi and Israel's Ambassador to the Vatican, as well as Minister of Public Security Yitzhak Aharonovich.