Despite lengthy wait, Pope touches hearts of Christian Palestinians in Bethlehem

‘Message of Christ still alive’ here, says believer, as Mass coincides with Islamic call to prayer from nearby mosque.

Pope Francis is greeted by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas upon his arrival to the West Bank city of Bethlehem May 25, 2014. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Pope Francis is greeted by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas upon his arrival to the West Bank city of Bethlehem May 25, 2014.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
BETHLEHEM – Olivia Atrash woke up at 4:30 a.m. on Sunday to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis. She made the journey from Acre on Thursday and stayed with a friend, Fadia Mukarker, in Beit Jala, a town opposite Bethlehem, ahead of the special mass the pontiff delivered in Manger Square.
After seven hours in the square, wearing white hats distributed on the occasion and keffiyehs embellished with the Palestinian flag, both said all was worth it. “This is all fine for the sake of the pope and God,” both friends confirmed.
The city of Bethlehem was aglow with love for Pope Francis on Sunday. Palestinian Christians gathered in Manger Square to pray with the pontiff, and said they were jubilant that he had personally come to see the hardships of living under Israeli military rule.
As a choir sang and people danced to Christian songs in Arabic, Fadi Makhlouf hummed along. “Christians are an integral part of this land and have been here for centuries. We are not a minority,” he said.
Makhlouf believes the pope’s trip to the Palestinian territories has important significance.
“He respects Palestine and the Palestinian Authority.”
Entrance to the square was by invitation only and Christian scouts manned temporary gates that had been set up to control the crowd. More than a thousand journalists were given access to cover the event, and some 3,000 security officials were deployed to secure the event.
Waiving Palestinian and Vatican flags, some released balloons into the air as soon as the pope arrived in his openair car. The band sang “Mawtini,” an old national Palestinian anthem, as the pope got ready for the Sunday Mass.
Pope Francis flew to Bethlehem from Jordan, making him the first pope to enter the West Bank without crossing from Israel.
“He doesn’t recognize barriers or checkpoints,” 30-yearold Shireen Nasri told The Jerusalem Post.“I hope his message echoes around the globe.”
The pope, in an unscheduled move, got out of his car and touched a portion of the nearby security barrier in silence. “Pope Francis, we want someone to talk about justice,” read a statement that was sprayed on the wall. “Free Palestine”, read another one.
“The visit definitely has political messages,” said Madlin Atrash at the square.
“The pope loves Palestine and Palestinians.
Many Christians who welcomed the pope at Manger Square told the Post what an historical occasion this was.
Louise Khoury from Jaffa felt that she took part in making history. “The message of Christ is still alive and being carried by the Catholic Church, and we are here to take part in that.”
Christine Khoury came all the way from Haifa to Bethlehem on Sunday morning to participate in the Mass. She is one of 3,500 Christians who came from Israel by special invitation from the Church.
She applied to come to Bethlehem over a month ago, and was on one of the six buses that departed from Haifa at 4 a.m. to make it in time for Mass.
“Pope John Paul II was considered a saint, and people who attended the mass in Bethlehem in 2000 are proud to have attended a mass by a saint,” Khoury said tearfully as she waited for the pontiff.
“We hope to be a part of this blessing.”
As the pope led the Mass, the Islamic call for prayer went off from the neighboring Omar bin al-Khattab Mosque. “It’s nice to see the two prayers going on together, signifying that Christians and Muslims are united as Palestinians,” Nasri said.
“Churches distributed around 9,000 invitations and priority was given to Palestinian Christians, as it’s a rare opportunity for them to see the pope,” Sara Husseini, a PLO communications adviser told The Jerusalem Post.
Israel has said that it gave permits to 400 Palestinians from the Gaza Strip to come to Bethlehem. “We expect lesser numbers of Gazans due to complications related to the delay in giving out permits,” Husseini said.
More than 50 percent of Palestinian Christians are members of the Greek Orthodox Church, and they looked forward to the meeting between the pope and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Bishara Emil from Jaffa said.
“I hope both leaders agree to save the Palestinian Christians in Israel from the calls to be drafted into the Israeli army,” he added.
A limited number of foreign visitors were also allowed into the square.
“We are very honored to meet the pope. We heard that he is a simple, modest, and a great man who loves the people and came from them,” Ebba Simeon from Ethiopia said.
Despite the general feeling of despair at the collapse of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, some people said they were happy that the pope invited President Shimon Peres and PA President Mahmoud Abbas to the Vatican.
“We are hopeful. Maybe what politics couldn’t do, religion will,’ Fadia Mukarker said.
Following the Mass, the pope listened to refugee children sing in the Phoenix hall near the Dehaishe refugee camp in Bethlehem. They handed him drawings and an embroidery resembling a refugee ID card.
Rania Misak, a 37-year-old teacher from the Gaza Strip, was one of those who lunched with the pope.
“I was afraid and happy at the same time to meet such an important personality,” she said. “But he was so modest.
I told him the people of Gaza are happy someone is speaking of their daily pain from the Israeli siege and the difficult economic situation.”
Five other families sat with the pontiff for lunch. One family has a deported son, another has a son spending a 28-year-long sentence on charges of being a PFLP member, another was a man who is denied family reunification, and a family whose lands were confiscated.
“He didn’t comment, but we read his facial expressions and body language. He put his hand on his forehead when I talked about the situation of youth in Gaza,” Misak said, “and that expressed a lot.”