POPE FRANCIS will step down from a helicopter in Bethlehem on
Sunday, at the start of a brief visit to the Holy Land. He will be
arriving from the Jordanian capital, Amman, and will later visit
Palestinians are interpreting the decision of the Pope to fly
direct to the West Bank rather than reachthe territory via Israel
as a symbolic message of support for their demand for an
independent state. But, at the same time, church leaders in the
Holy Land and Israeli government officials have expressed concern
that suspected anti-Christian Jewish extremists might seek to
disrupt the Pope's visit. Their worry stems from a number of
incidents of the daubing of anti-Christian slogans on church
property in recent weeks.
Last week, about 200 Orthodox Jews staged a protest at the spot
in Jerusalem where Christians believe the Last Supper took place.
The Cenacle, on the top of Mount Zion, also contains the tomb of
King David, and a mosque. Rabbis with loudspeakers led prayers and
protests against the Pope's visit. Rabbi Avraham Goldstein said
that "under Jewish law, it is a big problem. Basically they
[Christians] are taking over the place."
Also last week, Roman Catholic officials in Jerusalem were
shocked to see the words "Death to Arabs and Christians and all
those who hate Israel" written on an outer column of the Office of
the Assembly of Bishops at the Notre Dame Centre, just outside the
walls of the Old City. The Pope is scheduled to stay at the centre
during his pilgrimage.
The Patriarchate, in a statement, suggested that the vandalism
was directly connected to the imminent arrival of the Pope, and
criticised the Israeli authorities for failing to provide better
protection for Christian property. The statement said: "The wave of
fanaticism and intimidation against Christians continues."
A spokesman for the Latin Patriarchate for the Pope's visit,
Jamal Khader, said that the incidents were "increasing daily,
because nobody is doing anything about it. The police must know who
these people are."
The daubings of hate messages on both churches and mosques are
being described as "price tag" incidents - a reference to
statements from ultra-nationalist Jews that they will make the
government "pay a price" for restrictions placed on Jewish
settlement expansion in the West Bank.
Among other recent incidents, last April anti-Christian messages
were painted on the wall of a monastery to the west of the city
(News, 11 April 2013).
The Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz reports that
security services fear that Jewish radicals might commit some kind
of hate crime against the Christian population or institutions in
the Holy Land, to divert media attention away from the Pope's
visit. Extra security measures around Christian and Muslim sites
have been ordered.
The Israeli Internal Security Minister, Yitzhak Aharonovitch,
has said that those responsible for "price tag" incidents should be
officially classified as terrorists, and he promised to bring them
to justice. He also urged Arabs to exercise restraint rather than
seek to protect holy sites themselves with vigilante groups.
The Pope will be accompanied on his visit by a Jewish rabbi and
a Muslim scholar, both from his home country of Argentina. He will
commemorate the 50th anniversary of a meeting between Pope Paul VI
and Orthodox Christian leaders. During his stay in Jordan, he will
meet some of the one million or so Syrian refugees there; and
throughout his pilgrimage he will be urging Christians to halt
their exodus from the region.