Tourism minister tries to deter pope from meeting Sakhnin mayor

Stas Misezhnikov says meeting with "terror supporter" Ghanaim would contradict goal of pope's visit.

Stas Misezhnikov 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Stas Misezhnikov 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
With the papal visit less than a month away, Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov became embroiled Wednesday in a fierce discussion as to whether Pope Benedict XVI should meet with Sakhnin Mayor Mazen Ghanaim. "Ghanaim is a terror supporter who encourages war and who acted in opposition to the interests of the country in which he serves as a mayor. I call upon the Holy See to refrain from meeting with him," said Misezhnikov. "If the information regarding the pope's meeting is correct, it would stand in complete contradiction to the goal of the pope's visit, to advance peace and dialogue among nations and religions." The pope reportedly invited Ghanaim and a Christian citizen of Sakhnin to fly to the Vatican in advance of the pope's visit to Israel and speak with him about the status of Israeli Arabs. Ghanaim blasted Misezhnikov's comments, firing off a letter of complaint to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and also sent a copy to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. The Mossawa Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens of Israel also criticized the minister's comments, arguing that it constituted part of a systematic campaign designed to hamper advancing the peace process. Ghanaim made headlines during Operation Cast Lead earlier this year when he addressed a demonstration against the IDF operation and called out, as part of his speech, "I send a greeting to Gaza's residents, who are facing the Israeli occupation machine. Long live Palestine, whose capital is Jerusalem, and long live the martyrs." In the same speech, made before thousands of demonstrators, Ghanaim accused the IAF of "bombing and murdering innocent people." Misezhnikov's ministry plays a central role in the planning of the papal visit to Israel, which runs from May 11-15. The ministry is working to promote Catholic pilgrimages to Israel during the week of the visit, and current projections suggest that at least 40,000 pilgrims will arrive, bringing with them $50 million in income to the struggling Israeli economy. Misezhnikov met Wednesday with Vatican representatives who arrived for a preparatory trip. Meanwhile, the pope on Wednesday met a group of Palestinian Catholics who brought him a keffiyeh as a gift. The 27 faithful from a Bethlehem parish were among thousands attending the pope's weekly Wednesday audience in St. Peter's Square. At the end of the audience, two youths from the group were brought to Benedict and draped the keffiyeh on his shoulders. Benedict chatted briefly with them while wearing it, though an aide later removed it. During his visit the pope will visit Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, where he will celebrate Mass and visit a Palestinian refugee camp. Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.