An Israeli government adviser has said the Palestinians exerted heavy pressure on the Vatican to have Pope Francis pay an unscheduled visit to the security barrier just outside Bethlehem.
The pontiff gave a Mass in Bethlehem in Manger Square on Sunday morning, but he made an impromptu stop at one of the walled sections of the barrier en route to the site, standing aside the wall and bowing his head in prayer.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Oded Ben-Hur, a diplomatic adviser to the Knesset and a former Israeli ambassador to the Vatican, said Israeli diplomatic officials were unhappy the Palestinians had “used the pope as a political tool” by taking him to the security barrier.
“This was the result of enormous pressure from the Palestinian Authority. They exerted heavy pressure through different channels, and eventually the Vatican succumbed to their demand and took him for this moment at the barrier,” Ben-Hur said, although noting the pope did not speak at this unscheduled stop.
“We have to respect this, but we’re not very happy that they used the pope as a political vehicle or tool to obtain a public relations victory.”
He said, however, the pope’s condemnation of the attack at a Jewish museum in Brussels on Saturday that left four people dead, including two Israelis, showed the pope and the Vatican were sensitive to ongoing anti-Semitism.
Professor Raymond Cohen, a lecturer at Hebrew University and an expert on Israel- Vatican relations, said the stop at the security barrier did not appear to be totally unscheduled since there were cameramen waiting for him there.
He said the stop was a gesture of sympathy by the pope to the Christian inhabitants of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and their environs who, as a formerly unified Christian community, have been particularly affected by the security barrier, which he said has had a “catastrophic” impact on their lives.
Cohen noted that Christians in the Jerusalem area are often referred to as “living stones,” in contrast to the inanimate stones of the holy places such as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and that Christians fear that these places will turn into museums should the Christian presence in the area decline further.
During his speech at Ben-Gurion Airport, Pope Francis said the Palestinian right to a sovereign homeland should be recognized along with their right to freedom of movement.
The pope’s comments on freedom of movement were also a gesture of solidarity with the Christians of the area, Cohen noted. The often poor access for Christian clergy to their communities divided by the barrier was an oftheard complaint from Christians in the Jerusalem area, and it was this complaint that was being echoed by the pope in his comments on Sunday afternoon, Cohen explained.
Cohen also said the invitation to President Shimon Peres and President Mahmoud Abbas to pray in the Vatican with him was another powerful symbolic gesture of peace, which would see leaders from the great monotheistic faiths pray together.
“He’s put the peace message on the map of this visit. It is a surprise and it has been effective, and the pope has also successfully projected himself and the Church as important actors in promoting peace,” Cohen said.