Vatican perplexed by low mass turnout

Israeli official surprised over church's intent to investigate small numbers at Benedict's J'lem mass.

Pope Benedict XVI waves 248 88  (photo credit: )
Pope Benedict XVI waves 248 88
(photo credit: )
Roman Catholic officials will seek an explanation from Israel over the poor turnout at Pope Benedict XVI's open-air mass in Jerusalem last week, the Vatican's ambassador to the Holy Land said Thursday. Monsignor Antonio Franco, the papal nuncio to the Holy Land, said church officials were conducting an "inquiry" into reports that people with tickets were turned away at the entrance. "For sure," he added, worshippers received tickets so late that they were unable to attend. About 5,000 worshippers were expected at the mass, held on May 12 next to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Christians believe Jesus prayed before he was arrested. But no more than 3,000 people arrived, Franco said. Worshippers were required to have tickets to enter, and due to heavy Israeli security, they had to arrive hours ahead of time. Franco said it was premature to blame Israel for the logistical problems, but said he would press the Israelis for answers. "I don't have enough information to give my view of the situation," Franco said. "I want to get a clear understanding of what happened." On Wednesday, a local church leader complained that tight security had affected the pope's pilgrimage "badly." Fouad Twal, the Latin patriarch in Jerusalem, said he understood the need for security, "but when it is too much, it is too much." Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the event went smoothly from a security perspective and he did not know why people did not attend. He said there was "full coordination" with church officials, and police did everything possible to make sure everyone with a ticket got in. "It worked very well," he said. If people didn't get tickets, he added, "it had nothing to do with Israeli police." Wadie Abunassar, the church's media coordinator during the pilgrimage, said Israel allowed the church to distribute tickets only "days, not weeks" ahead of the mass, making it difficult for people to make arrangements. He added that many Palestinian Christians chose to stay away, intimidated by strict security checks by Israeli police. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor was surprised. "We have not heard anything like it from the Vatican itself or the embassy ... or from the people traveling with the pope," Palmor said. Officials at the Vatican declined comment. The pope was dogged by controversy throughout his five-day trip to Israel and the West Bank.