Posted by Kristin McCarthy on May 22, 2014 in Blog

Pope Francis’s imminent 3-day trip to Israel and the West Bank once again highlights the restrictions Palestinian Christians face in accessing religious and cultural sites throughout the Holy Land. Although Pope Francis has said that the trip is, “strictly religious,” the Pope’s every move is fraught with political implications for Palestinians, including the 200,000+ Palestinian Christians, living in the Holy Land. The Pope’s schedule includes two public Masses, one in Bethlehem and one in Jerusalem. Both events are inaccessible to large swaths of the Palestinian Christian community: Gazans have no travel permissions for either event, and Palestinians in the West Bank are rarely offered the proper permits to travel across Israel’s security wall to Jerusalem. There is also an extensive system of checkpoints that limits the ability of Palestinians to travel within in the West Bank from Palestinian town to Palestinian town. Pope Francis' decision to travel directly to the West Bank, without travelling through Israel, breaks Papal precedent and is being interpreted as an important sign of support for a sovereign Palestinian state.

The state of Israel’s diminishing and beleaguered Christian population has long been a topic of concern for the Vatican, which has indicated that “the predicament of Christians throughout the Middle East will be among the principle concerns” of Pope Francis’s discussion with local clergy while in the Holy Land. Just two days ago, a Palestinian Christian who runs the popular international service camp “Tent of Nations” outside of Bethlehem, had 1,500 fruit trees uprooted by the Israeli military in a continued effort to confiscate the farmland for Israeli settlement growth. The incident has garnered international attention, and outcry – especially from U.S. Christian pilgrims that have visited the farm and endorse it’s mantra “we refuse to be enemies.” It’s also been widely reported that Israel is on high alert concerning extremists carrying out “price tag” attacks specifically targeting Palestinian Christians in the lead up to the Pope’s visit. In fact, the Israeli government has just put 3 right wing activists on house arrest because they are suspected of plotting to disrupt the Pope’s visit. Israel is expected to deploy 8,00 police officers throughout Jerusalem to ensure law and order for the duration of the Pope’s tour.

To date, the U.S. government has failed to substantively comment on the Pope’s upcoming trip or the larger issues facing Palestinians hoping to catch a glimpse of the festivities. State Department spokeswomen Jen Psaki offered an unsatisfactory gesture yesterday when asked about the Pope’s upcoming trip, saying the U.S. “would certainly be concerned about any rise of anti-Christian or anti-religious sentiment that’s growing there.”  For all Palestinians, regardless of religion, the Pope’s visit is another reminder of the consequences of the decades old Israeli occupation and the most recent failure in peace negotiations.

 

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