Roman Catholic popes do not visit Jerusalem very often. But Pope Francis I is coming to town — and many right-wing Jews are none too pleased.
Last week the Israeli Shin Bet security agency ordered an undisclosed number of Jewish activists to stay out of parts of Jerusalem during the pope’s visit. The order said the activists were thought to be planning “disruptions” and “provocative illegal acts,” including what the Israeli newspaper Haaretz called a possible “major hate crime.” This follows a recent trend of right-wing efforts to call for “death to Arabs and Christians and all those who hate Israel.”
Jews and Christians revere the Tomb of King David in Jerusalem. But for Christians, Jesus’ Last Supper supposedly took place in a room above David’s Tomb, according to tradition — although archaeologists doubt the traditional site is the actual site. In any case, Israel permits Christians to perform services in the room only one day a year.
During the pope’s visit, the Israeli government might sign an agreement to give Christians access a few more days per year. According to Haaretz, this could anger many far right Jews, though no change of ownership or managerial responsibilities would occur. If the government makes such a move, it would bolster Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claims that Israel upholds religious freedom.
Author and Economist correspondent Nicolas Pelham contrasts many aspects of Christians living in Israel and those living in the Palestinian Territories. He says some Christians in Palestine have high political or economic position. Nine Palestinian towns, including Bethlehem, are obliged to have Christian mayors. And Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has attended three Christmas worship services.
Similar trends in Israel exist little or not at all.
Yet Pelham and others admit that whatever support Christians find in Israel or Palestine may just be politically motivated. Author and journalist Ray Hanania is a Palestinian-American Christian, and often blames Israel for the troubles of Christians there. But Hanania cares more about aiding Christians than attacking Israel:
“To survive, Christians need friends in the Middle East. And if Israel is willing to extend its hand to help us, I am not sure that as a Christian Palestinian I can say no.” Hanania doubts any chance of dialogue with Jewish extremists, such as those who created flyers condemning the pope’s visit because “the pope is responsible for the continued deception of millions of people who believe in false G-d’s [sic]” and because of “the lies perpetrated by the Christian faith for 2,000 years.”
But he puts no hope in radical Islamists, either. In fact, in an open letter to the pontiff, he asks for action against all extremists, since “Christians are not treated well by any side.” In a recent report on Mideast Christians, the Pew Research Center states the percentage of Christians in the region has cut in half since 1900.
So far the pope is on day one of his Middle East trip — Jordan. For three days in three nations, he will meet with kings, prime ministers, and patriarchs, Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Already he is discussing peace and religious freedom with whomever will listen.