Ramattan News Agency
Just like Jesus is believed to have been born in a manger, rejected by his immediate neighbours, Pope Benedict XVI is likely be following a somehow similar rebuff by the very core of people that matter when he comes to Bethlehem Wednesday.
While the Bethlehem Municipality and Palestinians in general welcome the pontiff in their belief that he will bring with him the world’s attention to their plight, the dwindling number of Palestinian Christians are among the most aggrieved from this pilgrimage most resembles a perilous act of tightrope walking.
It is deemed by everyone to be a totally different pilgrimage from Pope John Paul II’s, who had managed to touch the hearts and minds of Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.
Thousands of pilgrims from around the world have travelled to the Holy Land to follow Benedict, but several Palestinian Christians will be boycotting the mass today in Manger Square.
“I am a bit disappointed by the Christians of Bethlehem because I wished them to be more enthusiastic about the pope,” says Sister Patricia Crockford, 72, a Maltese Sister of St Joseph who has lived here for over 40 years and teaches music at Bethlehem University.
At the same time, Sr Crockford understands the Palestinian Christians’ frustration at being a minority within a minority, forgotten by most of the world.
“Pilgrims who come here from abroad never pray for Palestinian Christians,” she says. “They hardly know they exist. I have to speak to the Latin Patriarch about this. What kind of Christian can you be when you forget your own brothers?”
Christians in Israel and the West Bank amount to a mere 2%, a shocking figure when compared to the 20% residing here in 1948.
The Israeli occupation ranks first among their problems. Being a minority among a wider Muslim society does not help either, although they mingle with their Muslim co-nationals every day without religion being an issue. Most of the Christians are middle-class families in search of opportunities abroad.
Sr Patricia, who teaches mostly Muslims, says she feels entirely respected by them.
“They are very humble with us, they respect me for having my faith, and they ask me to pray for them,” she says.
As the pope continues his five-day pilgrimage, he is bound to keep displeasing everyone. He did speak unequivocally about the right of Palestinians to have their own independent state and on the immediate need of peace in the region, but Palestinians want him to say the Wall has to fall and settlement construction has to stop.
He also condemned Holocaust denial, although that was clearly not enough for Israelis who said he should have used the word ‘murder’ for the six million Jews exterminated by Nazi Germany instead of ‘killed’, and that he should have apologised for Nazism.
Palestinian Christians are afraid his visit here somehow ‘normalises’ the occupation.
Only last week, a report issued by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) revealed how only 13% of Bethlehem’s land is available to Palestinians.
The separation wall in the Bethlehem governorate reaches 10 km into the West Bank. If completed, it will cut off from the urban centre, approximately 64 square km of some of the most fertile cultivated land in the governorate as well as 21,000 Palestinians residing in villages west of the planned route, OCHA said.
Also, the war on Gaza is too fresh for Palestinians to withstand seeing him shake hands with Israel’s leaders, and the fact that he will not be visiting the besieged Strip has angered Christians there.
Christian lawmaker Hossam Al Tawil, from the Gaza Strip, called on the pope to visit the “living museum of the Gaza Holocaust” in a clear rebuke for his visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Israel Monday.
Equally bewildering for Palestinians is the pontiff’s meeting with the family of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, detained by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, while some 11,000 Palestinians are detained in Israeli jails.
“What about their families?” Al Tawil said.
“Many Christians are saying, he is our pope. Why is he devoting so much energy to others?” Sr Crockford said.