From Jerusalem: Ecumenical Surprises During Pope Francis’ Holy Land Trip

Church of the Holy Sepulcher, located in Jerusalem’s Old City

It’s a busy week for news from the Holy Land.  The Vatican is gearing up for Pope Francis’s historic trip to the Holy Land on May 24-26.

This will be a uniquely ecumenical trip:  Pope Francis will take with him his two good friends from his years as archbishop in Argentina, Rabbi Abraham Skorka, co-author of his book On Heaven and Earth, and Islamic studies professor Omar Abboud.

And a highlight of his trip will be a planned meeting with Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, followed by an ecumenical prayer service include representatives of the five Christian communities who maintain an historic presence at the major Christian holy sites:  the Latin (Catholic) community as well as the Greek, Armenian, Coptic and Syrian communities.

With so much buzz on the Internet regarding Pope Francis’ planned pilgrimage, I am grateful for my friend Cecilia Lakin’s “eyes and ears on the ground.”   Cia has been sending updates as she talks with friends and people of influence in the Old City.  I featured her report earlier this week, and plan to do so again as she continues to update the story.

Cecilia Lakin

Here are today’s observations on the forthcoming papal visit from guest blogger Cia Lakin:

We traveled from Tel Aviv-Jaffa back to Jerusalem today.

More banners welcoming the Pope have been hoisted. A long parade of alternating yellow and white Papal banners and blue and white banners with the Star of David line the road into Jerusalem. These banners, and other large banners reading “Jerusalem welcomes Pope Francis” have been put up in public places by the Jerusalem Municipal Authority.

Steps taken by Israeli authorities to control the efforts of ultra Orthodox and right wing fanatics to disrupt the Papal visit are supported by the Israeli public. “Of course we want him to be safe!” exclaimed the driver who took us back to Jerusalem. “We want all our visitors to be safe! You’ve been here; haven’t you seen that?”

After settling in to our hotel we walked into the Old City, past the Franciscan Christian Information Center where the banner celebrating Pope Francis and his visit still hangs, unmarked. Arriving at a plaza overlooking HaKotel (the Western Wall of the Temple Mount), I was struck by the number of IDF troops in the area. Soldiers usually secure this most holy of Jewish sites, but their numbers are increased significantly. Israeli press reports indicate that right wing troublemakers from ultra Orthodox yeshivas (religious schools) near the Temple Mount have been identified as potential sources of disruption, so military presence in this area is logical.

Otherwise, however, the atmosphere is decidedly more festive than tense. Even the soldiers at the Western Wall area seemed focused but relaxed – at least as relaxed as soldiers here ever seem.

The Pope will be in Israel only slightly more than 24 hours, and will also rush through Jordan and Bethlehem – which is in the Palestinian Authority. He will celebrate only one Mass in Israel, at the Cenacle (the place revered as the site of the Last Supper), and will meet with multiple religious and political figures during his three stops. Israel’s President (and former Prime Minister) Shimon Peres is reportedly delighted that His Holiness is coming during the closing weeks of his term in office.

One complaint I’ve heard many times from Catholics here is that so few of the faithful will have any opportunity to see him. Choosing to saw Mass in the Cenacle, revered as the site of the first Mass, might be personally meaningful to the Holy Father, but it is perplexing to local Catholics. Other sites are crowded into his exhausting schedule here, and few include opportunities for much contact with crowds. It will be interesting to see whether this often unpredictable Pope deviates from the itinerary to encounter the crowds.

Seeking some understanding of the Vatican’s take on this visit to the Holy Lands, and particularly to Israel, I touched base with a trusted friend attached to the Vatican Secretary of State. He told me, “I think the State of Israel is thrilled to have the Pope… longtime friend of the Jews in Argentina. The ‘hostility’ is from a few extremists who spray painted nasty stuff on Christian sites. There are more than a few wing-nuts in israel, but that’s the only place any hostility is coming from… wish I were there as well!”

We had talked earlier this week about the “price-tag” vandalism to Christian sites, which has been reported in the American press, and the response of the Israeli authorities.  Regarding that situation, Cia reports:

The unit of the Israeli police charged with investigating so-called “price-tag” vandalism, the Anti-Nationalist Crimes Unit, working with Shin-Bet (the Israeli Security Agency), arrested three yeshiva students of ages 16-17 and charged them with vandalism and hate crimes. They attend a school near Nablus, and are accused of slashing car tires and spray painting graffiti.

The municipality they targeted, Gush Halav, is about 55% Maronite Catholics, 10% Melkite Greek Catholic, and 35% Sunni Muslim. Graffiti indicating that “goyim” would be driven out of the country could be interpreted as referring to either Christians or Muslims, or both, since the word popularly means “non-Jew.” The term “price tag” refers to vandalism and violence committed by far right wing Israelis protesting governmental policies in the West Bank (such as ceding land or control to Palestinians) and to hate crimes against Christians and Muslims.

As one Israeli explained it to me, this rag tag group holds that every governmental act which it opposes carries a “price tag,” and the group’s members will extract the price through its acts of vandalism.

There’s more:  Cia has read those rumors regarding the Pope’s health, and will be talking about that in the coming days.  She’ll be attending Mass in Hebrew and then dining with the priests from St. James Vicariate, and she’ll share that experience.  

I’ll keep you posted.  (And travel mercies, Cia!)


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