Sunday, July 12, 2020

Pope Francis I visits Bethlehem

By Lil Jackson - May 27, 2014
Section: [Main News] [Videos]
Tags: [Bethlehem] [Christians ] [Pope Francis I]

It was a scene of pure elation in Nativity Square in Bethlehem on Sunday as Palestinians celebrated the visit of Pope Francis I. Welcomed by Palestinian Christians, Muslims and tourists alike, the Pope held mass in the square for crowd of approximately 7,000 people. 

On his first official visit to the Holy Land, Pope Francis said his aim was to strengthen ties with the Orthodox Church, officially marking the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and the then-leader of the Orthodox Christian Church, Patriarch Athenagoras. In addition to holding a public mass, Pope Francis spoke to children from local refugee camps and had a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. 

Jessica Salameh, a resident of Bethlehem and a volunteer organizer of the occasion told Palestine Monitor Pope Francis’s visit was a “big event” for Palestinian Christians and that “many people from all over Palestine” had come to Bethlehem to welcome the Pope.

Photo by Lazar Simeonov.

In addition to hosting the Pope, Bethlehem presented his holiness with a gift. Vera Baboun, the Mayor of Bethlehem described The Lamp of the City of Peace, designed by George Sadafi Khoury and carved by Akram Anastas in a press conference prior to Pontiff’s visit: “The most important symbolism of this gift is that the light needs oil to remain enlightening and the best oil is the oil of peace.” The Lamp of the City of Peace was in the form of a chandelier, made from red Jerusalem Stone, the same stone used to restore the church of the Nativity in the 6th century. 

Pope Francis had to walk the diplomatic tightrope whilst in the Holy Land. The purpose and message of this trip gave rise to divergent opinions, with many respecting Pope Francis as a religious rather than a political figure, and others expecting him to address Israel’s occupation. In a press conference with Pope Francis on Sunday morning, President Abbas commented: “We count on your holiness to contribute towards enabling our people to attain their freedom and full independence, by bringing the Israeli occupation to a complete end and establishing an independent state with east Jerusalem as its capital.”

When asked if the Pope’s visit could encourage the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, Sophia Daibes, a 19-year-old student from the village of Birzeit and Palestinian Christian attending Sunday’s mass, affirmed that his visit was purely for religious purposes: “It is our pleasure to have the Pope here and it brings happiness to our hearts that he came here to the holy land, but he is a religious figure, not a political one.” Pontiff’s presence cannot reverse what “the Israelis have been altering for the past twenty years. I don’t think his visit can make that much of a difference,” argued Diabes.

Photo by Lazar Simeonov.

However, the unscheduled stop at Israel’s Separation Wall came as a welcome surprise to many. Prior to the Papal visit, large sections of the wall in Bethlehem had been painted grey in an effort to cover paint slogans written by people of the popular resistance. “Despite the fact that the Israeli army continued to paint over them so the Pope would not see. They did this regardless of the risks involved in their acts,” Mustafa Barghouti, leader of the Palestinian National Initiative, said in an interview with Palestine Monitor

Mustafa Barghouti also touched on the significance of the Papal visit. For him, the most poignant part of Pontiff’s Sunday’s visit to Bethlehem was “the image of the Pope standing in front of wall, head against it and praying…He not only touched the wall, he touched the actual physical injustice being done to the Palestinian people. In fact, the part of the wall he touched is the segment that blocks Palestinians from Bethlehem from reaching Jerusalem.”

Pope Francis’s prayer at the separation wall may not be enough for those expecting a denouncement of the occupation, but the gesture was politically charged. This image will resonate with a great many people who regard the wall as unjustified. It was a quiet yet moving portrayal of sympathy and respect toward those living with life behind the wall, and reinforced Pope Francis’s view that the situation has become “increasingly unacceptable.” 

The resounding image of the Papal visit to Bethlehem, one that will “stay with the world as long as Israel’s Apartheid wall stands, is the image of the Pope standing and praying at the separation wall,” said Barghouti.



Video by Claire Boubé from HolyLand Production.


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