Pope Benedict XVI official visit to the Holy land is clearly a historical event. Much preparation was done by the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem and his beatitude Fuad Twal wanted to make sure that his visit is well organized and memorable. Several committees were appointed in order to prepare the important visit including a Steering Committee, Committee for Liturgy, Committee for Communications, Financial Committee, Secretariat, Committee for Infrastructures, Committee for Public Relations, Committee for Guests and a Committee for Initiatives.
Arriving in Bethlehem from Jerusalem, the Pope Benedict XVI was driven into Bethlehem through a gate in the 8 meter high concrete wall, part of the separation barrier Israel has constructed around the West Bank.
Palestinian security blocked the streets of Bethlehem as they awaited the Pope’s arrival. Banners and posters welcoming the Holy Father were hung all over Bethlehem. Some read “Our Pope, our hope we welcome you to Bethlehem”. Yellow and white flags of the Vatican filled the streets along with the Palestinian Flags.
The Pontiff received a red carpet welcome to Bethlehem at the presidential Palace where also Palestinians dignitaries were waiting to welcome him. “I have seen … overshadowing much of Bethlehem, the wall that intrudes into your territories, separating neighbors and dividing families,” the pope said.
Awaiting His Holiness on that sunny day in the Manger Square outside the Church of Nativity were over 10, 000 locals Palestinians and pilgrims all chanting “Viva il Papa! Viva Palestina!”, “Benedetto, Benvenuto!”
A large choir sang Christian songs as the people waved the Palestinian and the flag of the Vatican. In his homily Pope Benedict urged Palestinians to stay strong in faith and have hope for peace and a better future. A special message for the people of Gaza: “I ask you to bring back to your families and your communities my warm embrace, and my sorrow for the loss, the hardship and the suffering you have had to endure. Please be assured of my solidarity with you in the immense work of rebuilding which now lies ahead, and my prayers that the embargo will soon be lifted.”
A resident of Jerusalem Maha Habib who came to Bethlehem to attend mass said “I am very happy to see the Pope and have him visit us here. His visit means a lot”.
Also delivered a special message of solidarity to the 1.4 million Palestinians living in Gaza, saying: At the end of the Mass he shook hands with representative of the Palestinians Christians from Gaza who received permits to come to Bethlehem to be with the Holy Father.
Daoud Masoud, 59 year old was one of the rare people who had this opportunity to meet the Pope:
“It was a blessing that we had the permit, first we attended Mass celebrated by his Holiness. his speech about Gaza gave us strength to stay strong and keep going, not giving up on our lives there and to keep hope. The second day I had the opportunity to visit the Holy Seplchre to pray and there I could not stop myself from crying and there I cried.”
Our sectary Ameen Sabbagh from Gaza who was not able to get a permit to come to Bethlehem said “I was greatly disappointed. This would have been my only chance to meet the Pope. I wanted to talk with him and try to express my feelings from a Christian living in Gaza.”
From almost 3000 Christians living in Gaza only 95 Gazans were able to obtain a permit to attend the Holy Mass. Ghada Sabbagh a woman from Gaza said, “For 13 years I haven’t had the chance to see my brother who lives in Bethlehem. This was a double blessing to pray with the Pope and see my brother.” Then she added: “I would like to take this chance to thank you all at Caritas Jerusalem for the assistance you have provided us during these horrible days we went through. Caritas has accompanied us and gave us hope, Caritas does not forget us”.