Jerusalem’s Bishop Shomali said everyone is allowed to travel to Bethlehem for the Pope’s Mass, but people in Jerusalem are unhappy because security prevents them getting close to him.

The Pope will go on “a pilgrimage of prayer” to Amman, Bethlehem and Jerusalem May 24-26. Media reports speak of great excitement but also of tensions and difficulties in Bethlehem and especially Jerusalem ahead of his visit. To get a better understanding of the situation on the ground on the eve of the papal visit, I asked Bishop William Shomali, the Palestinian-born auxiliary-bishop of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, to describe what is happening. 

Following is the text of the interview conducted on May 20:

Q. What is the situation in Jerusalem on the eve of the Pope Francis’ visit? There have been reports of tensions, and of people saying that nobody will be able to get near the Pope.

A. In Jerusalem the situation is a little bit different to Bethlehem because of the restrictions on circulation during the Pope’s visit. People are not allowed to walk in the streets of the area around the Holy Sepulcher, or Gethsemane; at least 2 kms around (are cordoned off) because of the security. Only those who have tickets can reach those places after security checks.

For this reason, the Christians who didn’t get tickets to see or meet the Pope in the Holy Sepulcher or in Gethsemane are unhappy. The Israeli security is severe because the Holy Father wanted to come and to circulate in an open vehicle. This is the main reason. Even Catholic scouts are not allowed to be near Gethsemane. We are unable to do anything, and we know that our people in Jerusalem are unhappy.

Q. Is it true that there is some opposition to the fact that the Pope is going to celebrate Mass in the Cenacle, or upper room where Jesus celebrated the last Supper and the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles?

A. There is some opposition; but it is coming mainly from ultra-Orthodox Jews who have misunderstood the event. They thought that the Pope is coming to receive sovereignty over the Cenacle. This is not true! The Pope and the Vatican do not want sovereignty; they only want more use of the place in the early hours of the morning for masses and for prayer. In any case, this opposition will not influence the coming visit of the Holy Father; he will celebrate Mass in the Cenacle as programmed.

Q. What is the feeling among Christians in the Holy Land, those living in Jerusalem, Galilee, the West Bank and Gaza? I have read reports that say many people from these areas will not be allowed to travel to Bethlehem for the Pope’s Mass. Is this true?

A. First of all I would like to say that all the tickets for the visit of the Pope to Bethlehem and for the Mass there are exhausted. There are no more tickets left. 10,000 were distributed, and many people asking for more. This is different from the two previous papal masses in Bethlehem, when John Paul II and Benedict XVI came. It means that this Pope attracts crowds.

Everyone is allowed to travel to Bethlehem: from Jerusalem, from Galilee, from the West Bank, and even from Gaza. They (in Gaza) received today 700 permits to come to the event. We know that the total number of our Catholics in the parish in Gaza is 200, so this means that more than double the number of permits were given to the Orthodox Christians who wanted to join (us) on the occasion of the visit of the Holy Father. So it is wrong to say that people are not allowed to come to Bethlehem!

Q. What is your own expectation for this visit?

A. As we saw during his visit in Brazil, Pope Francis is able to conquer hearts, the hearts of all people, because of his simplicity, because of his faith, because of his tenderness with sick people, and with children who are suffering.

I believe that his meetings with the five poor families in Bethlehem, with the children of Dheisheh (refugee) camp (also in Bethlehem), and with the refugees in Jordan will leave a strong impact in the hearts of everyone. I believe also that his speeches will be strong, and move the hearts of people. I expect that he will invite all the politicians to greater brotherhood, to reconciliation and to forgiveness. Only the Pope can say that. Moreover, we know the Holy Father can surprise us. We are expecting surprises!