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Disruption feared on eve of Pope’s visit to Holy Land

23 May 2014


Welcome: workers hang a poster of Pope Francis in Bethlehem on Monday

Welcome: workers hang a poster of Pope Francis in Bethlehem on Monday

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 Jerusalem.

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.

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