2016-07-27
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NAZARETH, Israel, (RNS) March 26--When Pope John Paul II uttered the ancient greeting "peace be unto you" in Arabic during Saturday's Mass here at the Basilica of the Annunciation, Awad Abu-Sini felt an unfamiliar tingle of emotion well up inside.

"He was praying with us in Arabic. It was perhaps the first time I really felt myself as a Christian here within a supportive community," said the 65-year-old Catholic souvenir store owner. "It gave me encouragement that I hadn't expected."

From the start, preparations for the pope's visit to Nazareth on were tinged with dispute and disagreements that have proven deeply demoralizing for this ancient community, which today constitutes the largest concentration of Christians in Israel and the West Bank.

Two years ago, as urban renovations for the millennium and the pope's visit were in high gear, the Muslim activist group Shihab-a-din occupied a plot of land adjacent to the landmark basilica--built over the spot where tradition says Mary learned she would give birth to Jesus--and demanded a mosque be built there.

The site had originally been earmarked as a millennial plaza where the pope would be received.

Ensuing months of Muslim-Christian tensions erupted into violence last Easter. The subsequent decision by an Israeli government ministerial commission to permit the construction of the mosque on the site enraged the Vatican, however, and almost torpedoed the papal visit here. Moreover, it underlined the political vulnerability of the local Christian minority to the growing Muslim majority, both in Nazareth and the Galilee, the ancient heartland of the church.

But even when relative Muslim-Christian calm had returned, the Christian community here remained weak and demoralized. Nazarene Catholics suffer from a long legacy of conflict and alienation between Arab laity on the grassroots and the predominantly foreign clergy who control the city's church institutions, said Abu-Sinni.

And that alienation overshadowed any excitement about the historic papal tour, which concluded Sunday.

"We feel neglected and scattered," Abu-Sinni said. "We have no leaders, no initiative to unite us. Most of the priests in the Latin (Roman) church are from Italy. There are very few Arab clergy, and most of the services are held in Latin, rather than in Arabic. On Sunday, if you go to the basilica, you can count the number of Arab worshippers in the tens and twenties. I myself prefer to pray in the Greek Catholic church nearby. At least they have a service and a nice choir in Arabic."

Against this general atmosphere of gloom, Nazareth's local Christian leaders were particularly disappointed by the Vatican and Israeli government move to limit the pontiff's visit here to a ceremonial Mass at the basilica.

They saw it as further evidence of their marginality in the eyes of the powers-that-be in Rome. Notably, the large outdoor mass that had originally been planned for tens of thousands of local Christians on a hill overlooking at the city was cancelled, ostensibly for logistic and security reasons.

Instead, the event was relocated to a hillside near the Mount of the Beatitudes on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where it was held Friday before an audience of tens of thousands dominated by foreign tourists, rather than local Arab Christians.

Still, somehow, despite all of the disappointments associated with the preparations, Nazarenes like Abu-Sinni ultimately said they felt encouraged when the popemobile finally entered the city.

Indeed, the pontiff's arrival here was met with an unexpected wave of emotion not only among the limited church audience but also on the streets, where tens of thousands of Nazarenes stood for hours just to get a glimpse of the pontiff, who waved weakly despite the fatigue etched on his face.

"We Christians live here in a very difficult situation," said Abu-Sinni, his voice gruff with feeling. "We passed through two years of desperation. The preparations for the visit were controlled by the police and the security services.

"So we were very pessimistic because we knew that the pope's visit was mixed with politics. He had to make gestures to the Palestinians, to the Jews and to the Muslims--what was there left for him to do for his own community, the largest one in Israel and the Holy Land? I didn't expect much.

"Yet when people spontaneously shouted `we love you pope' there was a climax of emotion that I have never seen before inside that Basilica of the Annunciation. We now feel a little more united and hopeful. We feel encouraged that we can show that the followers of Jesus are still alive, in Nazareth, the city of Jesus."

Another hopeful outcome of the visit was the peaceful welcome that was accorded to the pope by the city's Muslim community, which constitutes an estimated 60 to 70 percent of the city's 60,000 residents, depending on whether the informal census is being made by a Christian or a Muslim.

At the disputed plot of land adjacent to the Basilica where the Shihab-a-din mosque is soon to be built, hundreds of Muslims watched the papal procession in respectful silence. Dozens of Muslim activist leaders, wearing green hats and carrying walkie-talkies, kept the peace in the mixed crowds of Christians and Muslims, working right alongside the regular Israeli police force.

In an incident reminiscent of the scene at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity on Tuesday, the noontime calls of the Muslim muzzein began to echo from the area just before the pope was due to leave the church. But the call to prayer was particularly brief, and loudspeakers were muted, leaving only a passing moment of tense silence in the generally convivial Christian and Muslim crowd.

Most Muslims in the crowd went out of their way to express their solidarity with the feelings of their Christian friends and neighbors on the occasion.

"I'm so excited that I can't even talk. I feel here that the Muslims and Christians are like brothers on this special day," said Adam Awadi, the Muslim owner of a local automobile repair garage, as he waited for the pope to pass by.

There were many Christians, however, who still worried about how their community would really fare after the excitement over the papal visit had faded. For decades, the ancient community has suffered a slow decline due to emigration, economic uncertainty and political instability that has led it to the brink of extinction.

"The Muslim-Christian situation is calm now. But the grievances remain and people don't feel easy. They are not settled down completely," said Fuad Farah, the Nazareth-based lay leader of the council of Greek Orthodox communities in Israel, the largest Christian denomination in Nazareth and in the Holy Land.

"If the pope's idea in coming here was reconciliation with the Jews and the Palestinians, I think he has done a good job," said Farah. "But if the idea was to visit and to know more about the Christian community in Israel and the Holy Land, to encourage it and give it more support, then I still don't think the visit was up to our expectations.

"The pope came to see the stones of the Holy land, and that's fine. But we, the Arab Christians, are the living stones, and he should have spent more time with us as well."

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