In just two weeks’ time, Pope Francis will embark on a visit to Israel, as well as Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, for a tour of the region that is expected to combine political consultations alongside appeals for greater harmony between religions and peoples, and several pilgrimage stops as well.
Tourism Minister Uzi Landau, responsible for overseeing and promoting Christian pilgrimage to Israel, expressed excitement about the upcoming papal visit, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.
In particular, Landau expressed his beliefs that much of Western civilization has been constructed on the foundations created by the Judeo-Christian religious legacy, and emphasized the importance for people from around the world who share such values to visit the places where the cornerstone for this culture was laid.
The minister also pointed to the instability and violence that has been witnessed in recent years in the broader Middle East, and underlined especially the detrimental affect it has had on Christian communities in the region.
Despite the regional threats to Christians, says Landau, Israel remains a point of stability and safety for both its local Christian population, and Christian pilgrims visiting the country.
During his interview, he also vehemently denounced the growing number of vandalism attacks perpetrated by extremist Jewish elements in Israel, including those against Christian holy places, as a moral and educational problem facing the country, as well as a challenge to the rule of law.
Below are the minister’s thoughts and expectations for Pope Francis’s trip.
How significant is the pope’s visit? It is very significant, because we’re speaking about the highest authority in the Christian Catholic world.
Pope Francis in particular has a high moral authority, and his unique attitude projects this combination of modesty, friendship and authority. His face shines with friendship and love of people. I think this visit will be highly important for us because he’s such a well-known and respected global figure.
We would have liked to see a much longer visit, and to be able to have the pope tour all over the Holy Land, to walk in the places where ancient kings and emperors walked, as well as the trails that the prophets who laid the foundation for our Judeo-Christian civilization walked – to go in the footsteps of the Christian believers of Jesus, starting from Nazareth, the Galilee and the Sea of Galilee [Lake Kinneret], and the Jordan Valley and the baptism sites, and from there to Jerusalem.
Some 20 years ago, [Samuel] Huntington suggested there was a clash of civilizations. I believe those who belong to the civilizations of rule of law, of freedom, of a deep belief in God, have to go back to those places where these civilizations all started.
The pope will be here for just one day and this is very significant, though Israel’s Christian community asked if we could influence the pope to extend the visit. We said that we share your feelings, but this is what we have to work with.
One of the major challenges we have abroad is that most of the people who come to Israel, as well as those who don’t come, know us as the Holy Land. But they do not always connect the Holy Land with Israel, or Jerusalem with Israel. This is a major problem for tourism here as well as a political problem, which we are not dealing with.
At the same time, Christians have a real problem in the Middle East, and are targeted for persecution by the ruthless parts of the Muslim community.
You see what they are undergoing in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon; Lebanon was a Christian state. You can see what’s happening in Egypt, even after the fall of the [Mohamed] Morsi regime, which was a Muslim Brotherhood regime; even today you sometimes have riots in which Coptic churches are set on fire.
There were 2.5 million Christians in Iraq until three years ago, now there are less than half a million.
In Bethlehem where [the pope] will give a mass, up until 1993 when it was under Israeli control, it was a majority Christian community of over 80 percent.
Today it is less than 25%, some even say 20%. In Ramallah there are almost no Christians left, with a similar situation in Gaza. It’s a major problem.
If those who ran the holy sites, let’s say in Jerusalem, were to approach the non-Muslims, how would they do so?
We wanted to show the pope that we are a different country in the Middle East, a country of the rule of law. Many different ethnic groups and religions live together with each other, unlike what happens around us. We have Muslims, Druse, Christians, Circassians and Beduin with Jews. But we continue to achieve, and to increase the standard of living here.
The pope’s visit has huge potential for [generating] tourism. If he were to walk all of those [holy] sites, then even without talking about it, people would want to follow him there. It is highly important for Israel’s hasbara, or political education, just to say that the pope is visiting Israel.
We also believe that tourism in general, and the pope’s visit in particular, will provide a bridge for understanding between different peoples with different languages and religions, and his time here will definitely contribute to that.
In fact, one aspect of his trip is an historical meeting between him and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, in which they will repeat a meeting which took place 50 years ago in 1964 [between the pope and patriarch of the time].
I would like for him to see our democracy, that we are a country that is different, that we are a different point in the Middle East. Ours is a country of rule of law, with many different communities, ethnic groups and religions. Bottom line, we live together with each other, unlike what’s happening surrounding us.
In Israel we are Jews, and we have Muslims, we have Druse, we have Christians, we have Circassians, we have Beduin; and despite all of the many problems we have in this country and tensions we have to deal with, we continue to increase the standard of living, and make achievements in many different fields.
So when I visit Arab communities or Christian communities, or I am visiting Israeli or Jewish communities in the periphery, the kind of complaints I hear are basically the same. I just visited two Arab communities in the Galilee. When you visit these communities, you hear many complaints about different issues. I told them, “Gentlemen, welcome to the club.”
When I go anywhere in Israel, I hear the same thing, But we have our democratic system to straighten out all of our differences, and this is how things should be done.
Were efforts made to have the pope visit the Galilee and local Christian communities?
I first approached President Shimon Peres before his visit to the Vatican, and I asked him to extend an invitation.
I don’t think I surprised him or suggested something he wouldn’t think of anyway; he was going to make the invitation.
The pope’s short stay makes me wonder to what extent he will be exposed to the true nature of Israel.
We don’t have enough time. I hope that in the very limited time we do have, we will be able to provide him with a glimpse of what’s happening here.
What’s on the pope’s schedule?
He will arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport on Sunday afternoon and travel to Jerusalem, where he has made some of his own arrangements. He’ll spend the night close to the Garden of Gethsemane and the Mount of Olives, and meet with the president, prime minister and chief rabbis. He’ll also visit Gethsemane and the church there, as well as [the Cenacle on Mount Zion,] the site of the Last Supper, and he’ll meet with the patriarch of Constantinople at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
He will also meet with the grand mufti of Jerusalem [on the Temple Mount], who is a blatant enemy.
Is there concern that this meeting endorses Muslim administration of the Temple Mount, when there is increased demand for Jewish visitation and prayer rights?
I would be surprised if there should be any suggestion that the Muslims alone should have exclusive control of this site, in particular when you see what’s happening in the Middle East around us. I am concerned about what the grand mufti will say, but we have no control over this.
Is Israel expecting increased tourism at the time of the papal visit, and in its wake?
The pope’s visit will definitely draw some pilgrimage, but we have to wait and see what will follow. We are preparing with respect to the marketing, and providing information about the visit for the period following it.
We would like to bring up the fact that he visited Gethsemane and the site of the Last Supper and wherever else he will go, which will attract attention. And we are still thinking hard about how we can encourage Catholic and other Christian believers to follow in the footsteps of the prophets, and visit the [holy] sites here.
But there are not only holy sites in this country. We have found that Christian visitors are also interested in what else the country has to offer and its diversity, and we wish to project this notion. We now have an extraordinary opportunity to promote the real Israel, to those who haven’t thought about us in this kind of way.
We are investing in infrastructure, such as the Gospel Trail [from Nazareth to Tiberias], the sites around the Sea of Galilee, and the baptism sites. And we are also trying to extend our hand out to the Christian communities here in Israel.
It was our ministry which initiated and helped with the Year of Faith celebration that we ran here in Nazareth on Mount Precipice [last November], which was conducted by the Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, who visited me here at the ministry and who I visited at the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem’s Old City. I also conducted reciprocal visits with Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III.
We are essentially trying to help pilgrims as much as we can, and help them feel that this is a friendly country that sees freedom of worship and the safety for all believers, whether citizens or pilgrims wishing to come here, as our responsibility.
And I wish to project the feeling that the holy sites the pilgrims are invited to come see are those physical sites which are proofs of all those historical events, one after the other, which set the foundations for the cradles of our civilizations, Jewish and Christian.
These are civilizations of human freedom, and human decency and rule of law. I see us here in Jerusalem, in the Old City and on the Temple Mount, and the entire country, as custodians of all of these places for everybody.
Does the recent spate of vandalism against various targets, including Christian holy sites, threaten the image of Israel protecting freedom of worship?
This is a poisonous and ugly seed that has grown in our backyard. I don’t care what people outside of Israel are writing, it is first of all our problem – an educational problem, a law and order problem. We should put it high on the agenda, not on that of the police but of the security services, to uproot this phenomenon as quickly as we can, for our own good. It is our responsibility before anything else, the way our society looks upon itself in the mirror