Pope in Bethlehem.jpgFor me today’s events–in Bethlehem and the Occupied Territories–are highlights of this papal trip to the Holy Land. Much of the focus is, inevtiably, on the pope’s relations with Islam and Judaism–not the best, especially in the latter case–and it seems they will be what they will be. Others focus on the geopolitics, as John Allen did in his NYT preview, as to how Benedict XVI might help foster peace. But I think that’s unrealistic, even if we have hope.

Benedict’s chief task is to be a Christian witness to all sides, and to really give spiritual and material uplift to the Christian population there. Ethan bronner of the Times has a very comprehensive piece on the region’s disappearing Christians:

JERUSALEM — Christians used to be a vital force in the Middle East. They dominated Lebanon and filled top jobs in the Palestinian movement. In Egypt, they were wealthy beyond their number. In Iraq, they packed the universities and professions. Across the region, their orientation was a vital link to the West, a counterpoint to prevailing trends.

But as Pope Benedict XVI wends his way across the Holy Land this week, he is addressing a dwindling and threatened Christian population driven to emigration by political violence, lack of economic opportunity and the rise of radical Islam. A region that a century ago was 20 percent Christian is about 5 percent today and dropping.

CNS has the text of the Mass in Manger Square in Bethlehem…Before that Mass, as NYT coverage notes, Benedict called for a sovereign Palestinian state and a lifting of the embargo on Gaza:

BETHLEHEM, West BankPope Benedict XVI traveled Wednesday to this town that Christians revere as the birthplace of Jesus, telling Palestinians that after decades of suffering, they had a right to a sovereign homeland “in the land of your forefathers, secure and at peace with its neighbors, within internationally recognized borders.”

Confronting the region’s political tripwires, he evoked “the loss, the hardship and the suffering” of Palestinians in war-torn Gaza, saying he prayed for the lifting of the economic embargo that Israel has imposed there since the militant group Hamas took control in 2007.

And, speaking in the presence of President Mahmoud Abbas before offering a mass in a sunlit Manger Square, he also urged young Palestinians to “have the courage to resist any temptation you may feel to resort to acts of violence or terrorism.”

Yet CNS also notes that just 100 Gazans received permits from Israel to attend, less than half the Latin patriarch’s request.

Concern for the largely Arab Christian population should not be, and isn’t a left-right issue. Deal Hudson has been outspoken on behalf of Palestinian Christians, as in this column. And he called on the pontiff to visit  Gaza, which isn’t going to happen.

But Benedict will soon visit a refugee camp bound in by the wall Israel is building, and that will be a remarkable moment and photo. Will update as it happens.


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