Interview Direct from the Holy Land: Is Pope Francis Safe?

Interview Direct from the Holy Land: Is Pope Francis Safe? May 20, 2014

In the days leading up to the Holy Father’s historic visit to Jerusalem, there has emerged a concern on the part of some Catholics for the Pope’s safety.

“Price tag” graffiti on the wall of a church reads “King David is for the Jews, Jesus is garbage.”

Given the widely reported incidents of vandalism by Jewish extremists, some Catholics have worried that Pope Francis will not be safe traveling in that volatile part of the world.  The Pope has refused to use a bullet-proof car, promising instead to ride in an open vehicle in order to more closely touch the people as he passes.

Then on Monday, May 19, protestors gathered at the Cenacle, the site of the Upper Room, where Pope Francis is planning to celebrate Mass this week.  They claim that having a Catholic Mass at the site, which they believe to be also the burial place of King David, is disrespectful to Judaism.

And with the detailed “down-to-the-minute” itinerary published in the Jerusalem Post, there’s no secret about where Pope Francis will be during the time of his visit.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz, noting Church leaders’ fears of a wave of hate crimes during the Pope’s visit, insists that the government cannot wait any longer to crush the price tag attacks.

“This abhorrent phenomenon,” says Haaretz,

“which began in 2008, is antithetical to Jewish values, and stands in stark contrast to the democratic ethics on which the State of Israel was founded. If continued unchecked, these heinous acts motivated by hate could threaten the foundations of Israeli society.”

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BUT HOW REAL IS THE DANGER?  Are incidents of “price-tag” vandalism and threats over-reported, while most Israeli Christians live humdrum lives without experiencing anti-Christian sentiment?  Was that death threat scribbled on the wall of the Notre Dame Center a matter of simple vandalism?

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Cecilia J. Lakin

Looking for answers to that question, I sought information from a friend on the ground:  Cecilia J. Lakin, a Detroit-area attorney who, with her husband attorney Sanford Lakin, is currently traveling in the Holy Land. Sandy and Cia are a Knight and Dame of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, and as such are very attached to Israel.  Cia tells me that she considers the Jerusalem kehilla(parish) of the Vicariate of St. James to be their second home parish.

The welcome banner for Pope Francis – still hanging on May 15

Cia was happy to answer my questions.  On May 14, I reported that Jewish authorities had asked the Catholics to take down a welcome banner which hung at the Christian Information Center in the Old City of Jerusalem.  Had it been removed?

Cia assured me that the banner still hangs, and she posted a photograph on May 15 to prove this.  Two days later, on May 17, it was still there.

Cia wrote of the positive relationship between the State of Israel and the Holy See. She went on to discuss the radical group led by Rabbi Goldstein:

There is a small but noisy group of ultra Orthodox Jews led by one Rabbi Avraham Goldstein.  Most Israeli Jewish citizens consider them annoying but harmless troublemakers.  As people described the group to me, I was reminded of the Westboro Baptist Church–an ostensibly religious group which does not represent any mainstream view, but instead masquerades as a group with more authority and influence than it has.  It is an amorphous group which would never have the wherewithal to organize any event which might endanger the Pope.

This group has been rumbling about the supposed impropriety of the Pope visiting the Cenacle–the place revered as the possible site of the Last Supper.  The Cenacle is in an ancient building with three levels, and traditionally many Christians also revere the lowest level as the site of King David’s tomb.  Israeli scholars with whom I spoke do not believe this is the site of the tomb, a matter that is widely known.  However, Goldstein and his group, Da’ath Torah, attempted to organize a protest against the Pope’s visit to this supposed Jewish “holy site,” and called on every Orthodox Jew in the city to appear for the protest.  Most Israelis just yawned, and out of thousands of people, fewer than 200–followers of Rabbi Goldstein–showed up.  

It is clear that Goldstein speaks for only a tiny minority of Jews.  Of course, it is possible that some leaders from various sectors can use this example of minority activity to their advantage to advance their own agendas.  In fact, however, it is important to put this event into context.  

I polled a number of Jewish Israeli citizens about their views concerning the Pope’s visit.  None had either issues or animosity, nor were they alarmed about any sites he might visit, including the Cenacle.  Clearly, the residents of Jerusalem are resigned to some massive traffic disturbances over the brief period of the visit; but they do not object to the visit itself.

And what about the welcome banner?  Cia wrote:

As to the banner displayed by the Franciscans at the Information Center, I called the center and asked whether authorities had requested that it be taken down, and the Franciscan with whom I spoke said, essentially, “Look for yourself and decide.”  

In fact, the banner is still up.  I sought out a well-placed Catholic source who told me that the police did suggest that the Franciscans remove the banner to avoid further antagonizing this fringe group, but the reply was, “We are not taking it down. If you want it down, you take it down.” 

This happened a week ago; obviously no one is taking it down.  The Israelis I surveyed about this matter were quite perplexed, seeing no purpose to be served by removing the banner.  None could see a significant reason for the police to suggest removing it and all were frankly puzzled.  One commented, “But why? What would that serve? Everyone knows the Pope is coming. Everyone knows his schedule. And everyone knows these people (Da’ath Torah) make some noise, but no one listens.”

I was not able to determine the level within the local police bureaucracy from which the suggestion had come, but obviously it had no juridical effect, since it has been ignored and not enforced.  Many Israelis with whom I spoke wanted to assure me that neither the Israeli people nor the Israeli state bear Christians any ill will.  Several mentioned that Israel is the only country in the Middle East where Christians have the right to free practice of their religion, and where their holy sites are protected by state authorities.

In fact, after Pope John XXIII was canonized, the Knesset (the Israeli national legislature) held a rare special session to honor him).  

And vandalism against churches:  Who are these vandals who desecrate the Christian holy sites?  Cia told me:

Returning to my well-placed Catholic source, I asked about recent acts of vandalism on Catholic churches.  I was told that when the vandals are caught, they tend to be young men between 13-16 years old, not an organized group of hate mongers.  Identifying the vandals is difficult, however, due to their demographics.

According to my source, this problem is not a matter to be dismissed easily as insignificant because the perpetrators are young men.  Rather, there is a failure in their education which leaves them to believe it is permissible for them to deface property in this hateful way, and that must be addressed.

While my source, along with others who spoke with me, felt that the police should be doing more to discover identities of vandals, none saw a laxity on the part of the police as any indication of official or state policy.

My own experience as a Christian in Israel is uniformly positive. I am very attached to the Vicariate of St. James, the authority under Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal with responsibility for Hebrew-speaking Catholics in the Holy Land; and know the Vicariate and its Vicar have good relations with the state of Israel. 

One last comment from Cia Lakin regarding the Holy Father’s use of an open car, rather than the bullet-proof vehicle which had been suggested.  “That worries any security person,” Cia wrote,

“…but the pope is the pope.  I am worried he will get sunburn.”

Thank you, Cecilia Lakin, for this excellent “insider’s” report!

When Pope Francis arrives in the Holy Land later this week, the Lakins will be on hand to see him.  I look forward to Cia’s continuing coverage from the scene.

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