JERUSALEM--Accustomed to keeping a low profile, Arab Christians in Israel and the West Bank are being careful to avoid giving the impression that Pope John Paul II is making his visit to the Holy Land on their behalf. Quietly, however, they are hoping that the Roman Catholic leader's arrival will help to ease what many feel is their increasingly difficult situation here.

The recent rise of Islamic fundamentalism among Palestinians and Israeli Arabs has been a source of deep concern to the small Holy Land Christian population.

Off the record, many Christians living in the West Bank complain that they are being persecuted by Yassir Arafat's Palestinian Authority, which has sought, through pro-Muslim policies, to appease fundamentalist opposition to the P.A.'s attempts to reach a peace agreement with Israel. Things are not necessarily any easier in Israel, however.

When a group of militant Muslims occupied the square adjacent to Nazareth's Basilica of the Annunciation and demanded that a mosque be established on the site, the Christian community was forced to look on, almost helplessly as the squatters proceeded to get their wish.

"Our problem is we feel that we are caught between Jews and Muslims, added Nasser Odeh, a 64-year-old Christian living in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City. "We feel that we don't enjoy all our rights here in Jerusalem as Christian Arabs. This is the way it goes when you are a minority."

But with the Pope's visit around the corner, Palestinian Christians are hopeful that their fortunes will take a turn for the better. And these hopes do not rest solely on the soothing effects of John Paul's message of universal peace, tolerance and brotherhood. Like almost everything in the Middle East, the expected benefits the pontiff will bring are political in origin.

To Palestinian leaders locked in a fierce diplomatic struggle with their Israeli counterparts, the Vatican, which has expressed sympathy in the past to Palestinian statehood demands, is seen as a potentially important ally. Although the pope will spend most of his time in the region in Israel, touring Jerusalem and the Galilee, Palestinians see his one-day visit to Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem as the key moment of his visit.

Thanks, in part, to an agreement signed recently between the Vatican and the Palestine Liberation Organization, the pope can be confident that he will receive a hero's welcome in Bethlehem, unlike French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, whose motorcade was pelted with stones during a recent visit to the West Bank town of Bir Zeit.

"The agreement constitutes a historic turning point in the benefit of peace...and as a guarantor of Palestinian national rights,'' Arafat said in a statement released following the agreement. "(It) rejects all Israeli attempts to annex and Judaize Jerusalem.''

Strongly criticized by Israel, the pact addresses the status of churches and the freedom of worship in the Palestinian territories. The preamble declared that an "equitable solution" for Jerusalem, based on international resolutions, was "fundamental for a just and lasting peace." It also called for international safeguards of freedom of religion.

Wadi Abu Nassar, an assistant to the Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, said that the agreement has "institutionalized the relationship between the Catholic Church and the PLO." He added that the Catholic Church does not recognize the sovereignty of Israel over East Jerusalem. "Now, there is an official channel between the PLO and the Catholic Church," he said.

As a further expression of the pope's solidarity with the Palestinian people, his visit to Bethlehem is set to include a tour of the nearby Dhaisheh refugee camp, home to some 20,000 Palestinians living in squalid conditions. The Palestinians hope this visit will bring worldwide attention to the plight of the refugees, whose future is one of the issues yet to be resolved by Palestinian and Israeli negotiators.

Like many Christians, Emil Jarjoui, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, is careful to portray the pope's visit as a boon to all Palestinians, and not just to Christians. "It will provide a sort of backing to our presence as Palestinians, to all the Palestinians of the world, that they have now a country and that they can come back to it," he said.

To ensure the Vatican's continued sympathies, Arafat knows that he must work to address the concerns of the Christians under his rule. Arafat, whose wife Suha is Christian, meets regularly with church leaders from the West Bank and East Jerusalem. And he is the principal guest of honor at midnight Mass in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem each Christmas.

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