Accustomed to keeping a low profile, Christians in Israel and the West Bankare being careful to avoid giving the impression that Pope John Paul II, whois due to arrive in the Holy Land in late March, is making the visit on theirbehalf. Quietly, however, they are hoping that the arrival of His Holinesswill help to ease what many feel is an increasingly difficult situationfor members of the Christian faith. The recent rise of Islamic fundamentalism among Palestinians and IsraeliArabs has been a source of deep concern to the small Christian populationhere. Off the record, many Christians living in the West Bank complainthat they are being persecuted by Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, whichhas sought, through pro-Muslim policies, to appease fundamentalistopposition to the PA's attempts to reach a peace agreement with Israel.Things are not necessarily any easier in Israel. When a group of militantMuslims occupied the square fronting Nazareth's Basilica of theAnnunciation and demanded that mosque be established on the site, theChristian community was forced to look on, almost helplessly as thesquatters proceeded to get their wish. But with the Pope's visit around the corner, the Palestinian Christians are hopeful thattheir fortunes may take turn for the better. And these hopes do not restsolely on the soothing effects of John Paul's message of universal peace,tolerance and brotherhood. Like almost everything in the Middle East, theexpected benefits the Pontiff will bring are political in origin.
To Palestinian leaders locked into a fierce diplomatic struggle with theirIsraeli counterparts, the Vatican, which has expressed sympathy in thepast to Palestinian demands for statehood, is seen as a potentially importantally. Although the Pope will spend most of his time in the region inIsrael, touring Jerusalem and the Galilee, Palestinians see his one-dayvisit to Palestinian controlled Bethlehem as the key moment of his visit. Thanks, in part, to an agreement signed last month between the Vatican andthe PLO, the pope can be confident that he will receive a hero's welcomein Bethlehem, unlike Prime Minister Lionel Jospin of France whose motorcadewas 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 ofpeace ... and as a guarantor of Palestinian national rights,'' Arafat said in astatement released following the agreement. "(It) rejects all Israeliattempts to annex and Judaize Jerusalem,'' Strongly criticized by Israel, the pact addresses the status of churchesand the freedom of worship in the Palestinian territories. The preambledeclared that an ``equitable solution'' for Jerusalem, based oninternational resolutions, was ``fundamental for a just and lastingpeace.'' It also called for international safeguards of freedom of religion. Wadi Abu Nassar, an assistant to the Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem, MichelSabbah, says that the agreement has "institutionalized the relationshipbetween the Catholic church and the PLO.
" He adds that the Catholic Churchdoes not recognize the sovereignty of Israel over East Jerusalem. "Nowthere is an official channel between the PLO and the Catholic Church," hesays. As a further expression of the pope's solidarity with the Palestinianpeople, his visit to Bethlehem is expected to include a tour of the nearbyDhaisheh refugee camp, home to some 20,000 Palestinians living in squalidconditions. The Palestinians hope that this visit will bring worldwideattention to the plight of the refugees, whose future is one of the issuesyet to be resolved by Palestinian and Israeli negotiators. Like many Christians, Emil Jarjoui, a member of the PalestinianLegislative Council, is careful to portray the Pope's visit as a boon to allPalestinians, and not just to Christians. "It will provide a sort ofbacking to our presence as Palestinians, to all the Palestinians of theworld, that they have now a country and that they can come back to it," hesaid. To ensure the Vatican's continued sympathies, Chairman Arafat knows thathe must work to address the concerns of the Christians under his rule.Arafat, whose wife Suha is Christian, meets regularly with church leadersfrom the West Bank and East Jerusalem. And he is the principle guest of honor at midnight mass in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem each Christmas. But the chairman of the Palestinian Authority must be careful not to beseen to alienate the Muslim religious leaders such Sheikh Mohhamed Jamal,the hardline deputy mufti of Jerusalem.
Jamal broke ranks with thePalestinian Authority's official line by launching a scathing attack onthe pope: "What message does this pope carry? None. Where was he when thechildren of Iraq were dying because of the embargo? Why didn't we hear hisvoice when Israel killed and imprisoned thousands of Palestinians?" Despite the interest of the Vatican and the predominantly Christian countries of the Western world in the peace process and developments in the Holy Land, the local community is politically very weak. Cities such as Nazareth and Bethlehem, that were once overwhelmingly Christian, now boast Muslim majorities. In Jerusalem, the Christian population numbers around seven thousand, down from 28,000 in1967 and 45,000 in 1947. The number of Christians of all denominationsliving today in Israel (including East Jerusalem), the West Bank, and theGaza Strip is in the neighborhood of 150,000. The Christian population of the Holy Land has fallen rapidly as a result of the emigration of the younger generation who feel persecuted by both Jews and Muslims. In the Bethlehem region the Christian population has fallen from an estimated 120,000 in 1967 to 50,000 today. "In a few years' time, Christian pilgrims coming to the Holy land will have to bring their own priest because there won't be any left," says Dr Samir Qumsiyeh, a physician from Bethlehem. In the eyes of many Palestinians, the pressures that drove so manyChristians abroad can be directly traced to the Israeli-Arabconflict.
The Anglican Bishop of the Diocese of Jerusalem, RiyahAbu Assal, states emphatically that prior to the establishment of theState of Israel, "The entire history of Palestine never witnessed anyreligious conflict between Christians and Muslims." In her book, This Sideof Peace, former Palestinian chief-negotiator Hanan Ashrawi asserts thatwhile growing up she felt no difference between Palestinian Christians andMuslims: "We did not know who was what, and it was not an issue." "Our problem is that we feel that we are caught between Jews and Muslims,explains Nasser Odeh, a 64 - year -old Christian living in Jerusalem'sChristian Quarter in the Old City. "We feel that we don't enjoy all ourrights here in Jerusalem as Christian Arabs. This is the way it goes whenyou are a minority." It remains to be seen whether or not the Pope's visit, or even theresolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will revive the spirit oftolerance that Palestinians insist once existed between the region'sChristian and Muslim neighbors. For the time being, however, Christians inthe Holy Land must do their best to come to terms with the fact that theyare not in charge. Farid Zuabi, a member of the Muslim Trust in Nazareth, summed up thesituation, as he defended the controversial campaign to build a mosquedirectly in front of the Basilica of the Annunciation, the traditionalsite where Mary received word that she bore the Christ child in her womb. "Isee no reason why the Muslims, who make up a majority in Nazareth, should notbe allowed to build their own mosque on this land, he said.
And then headded, in the spirit of consolation, "We want to invite the Holy Pope tolay the cornerstone for the new mosque.endsKhaled Abu ToamehSix Day St 36JerusalemIsraelPOBox: 17394Tel: 02 5815508Mobile: 050 331600