Refugees want pope as their emissary

The wall is the one thing Benedict won't be able to miss.

palestinians 88 (photo credit: )
palestinians 88
(photo credit: )
Mundher Amira plans to ask Pope Benedict XVI to help him and other Palestinian refugees return to their homes in Israel when he meets the pontiff at the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem on Wednesday. Now, as he sits, wearing a suit, in a small office in Aida on the outskirts of the city where he was born and raised, the father of four admits he is nervous when he thinks about the moment when he will greet the pope. "A lot of people want to meet him," Amira said. Although Amira and most of the refugees in the camp are Muslim, he believes the pope, as an international spiritual leader, can help them. "By meeting him, I hope I can send a message for the whole world that here Muslims, Christians and Jews can live together," Amira said. Amira is on the planning committee for the pope's visit to Aida. With the hope that Benedict will be the refugees' messenger, he plans to ask the pontiff to push for the implementation of UN General Assembly Resolution 194, which says that Palestinian "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date." Amira was born after his family fled the Beit Shemesh area, but he has heard from his father of the 200 dunams, or 20 hectares, that they had there. He said that in a letter written for the pope by camp members, "we will say that we are living in a refugee camp and we belong to another land." Statements like this, as well as plans for the pope at the camp, which had included hosting him on a stage next to the West Bank security barrier, have drawn harsh criticism from the Foreign Ministry. The Palestinians "have not missed any opportunity to politicize" Benedict's visit, Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said. "Their purpose is so clear and transparent you can read right through it. They are trying to divert the visit, to hijack it from being a pilgrimage with a message of interfaith reconciliation and unity and peace, and they are trying to draw him into political propaganda," Palmor said. Amira has no problem with introducing politics into the visit, because it is precisely those politics that make daily life for him and others in the camp difficult. Moving on to the roof of a home near the barrier, he showed how the wall snaked around greater Bethlehem and cut its residents off from Jerusalem and the surrounding area. To make a point about the evils of the "wall," Amira had hoped that the pope's visit to Aida would take place on a stone stage set up right next to the barrier in this part of Bethlehem. But when Israel objected by saying the stage had been illegally constructed, Benedict's visit was moved to the small courtyard of the UN Relief and Works Agency school for boys, just across the street. The wall will still be clearly visible during the visit to the school, Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh said. "There will still be photographs with the wall behind him. It's the same thing." The wall is the one thing Benedict won't be able to miss. Here, in contrast to the fence elsewhere in the West Bank, the security barrier is a tall concrete wall. In Bethlehem,its gray slabs flank the entryway to the city from Jerusalem. The wall also runs the length of the road that leads up to the small UNRWA school. Scribbled on the wall, next to the school, are layers of graffiti calling for Palestinian freedom. Not only will the pope head into the city through a gate in the wall where those with permits are allowed to pass, but he will continue alongside it on his way to the school. As he enters the refugee camp he will pass through a metal archway topped by a large sculpture of a key. For the close to 5,000 Palestinians who live in Aida, descendants of those who fled villages around Jerusalem 61 years ago, the key represents their desire to return. Amira said he was disappointed that the world would not see the pope next to the wall. "We wanted him to see the wall and the camp by sitting on the stage," he said. Behind him, workmen were drilling to improve the site. As he stood there, Amira showed how the view from the stage presented a straight line down to the wall and an IDF watchtower - and to the gate with the key. They had wanted a situation, he said, in which it would be clear to people looking at the press photographs that this was a place where refugees lived. As he spoke, workmen were busy preparing the school courtyard. They unfurled a large blue UNRWA banner off the side of the small white building. As a crowd of people watched and made spelling suggestions, a man in an orange shirt spray-painted the words "Pope Welcome" on a wall of the school. Along the crowded Bethlehem streets outside the camp, banners and signs welcoming Benedict were pasted onto buildings and were hanging off street lights. But not everyone was excited. A number of Catholic shop owners who were afraid to give their names said they felt let down by the Church in general and did not believe the visit would make a difference in their lives. John Paul II came here nine years ago and since then the situation has become much worse, according to a woman who said her family had lived in Bethlehem for more than a thousand years. Once, most Bethlehem residents were Christian. Now she estimates that their numbers have dwindled to 20 percent of the population. The pope's visit has not boosted business, which is very bad, she said, as she showed the three sales she had rung up for the day, totaling NIS 22. True, she was trying to get tickets to the pope's mass in Manger Square, but it was with a sad and skeptical heart. "The priests here can do much more for the people," she said. A Catholic man whose shop was just across the square from where the mass will be conducted said he, too, had not tallied more than NIS 20 for the day. Most of his sales, he said, come from items he sends abroad. Tourists come and leave. They do not tarry and shop, he said, as he hung necklaces with wooden doves on a rack in the shop. Israel and the wall are just part of the problems facing Christians in Bethlehem, he said. Even without Israel, the situation would still be bad because of the Palestinian Authority, the poor economy and a Church that has done little for its constituency, he said. "What will the pope do for us?" he asked. "In which language does he plan to speak? Not in mine," he said bitterly. But not everyone was negative. Epiphany Tabash, who had hung a yellow and white banner outside his store, said he was happy Benedict was coming and planned to bring his family to the mass. "It is very good that he is here" and can see how the people live, Tabash said. Batarseh, who is a Roman Catholic and a former activist in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, said a religious pilgrimage of this nature would help Christians in Palestine hold firmly to their land, which is at risk from the Israeli "occupation," and could even help those who had immigrated return. It was also significant that the pope had come at a time when a new Israeli government that he claimed did not want peace with the Palestinians had come into power. "I think the efforts of his Holiness the pope might help them change their minds. There is a path for peace where the two neighbors can live together with bridges of love instead of walls of separation," the mayor said.