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Israel, PLO eye political gains from papal visit
Published Monday 19/05/2014 (updated) 21/05/2014 12:01
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A tourist has her photograph taken in front of a banner bearing
the portrait of Pope Francis on May 18, 2014, inside the yard of
Saint Catherine's Church in the Church of Nativity, in Bethlehem
(AFP/Thomas Coex)
JERUSALEM (AFP) -- When Pope Francis arrives in the Holy Land on his "pilgrimage of prayer," Israelis and Palestinians will both be looking to use the visit to score a few political points.

Although the Vatican has said the emphasis of the pope's visit is to heal a centuries-old rift between the Catholic and Orthodox worlds, every gesture he makes is likely to come under close scrutiny by both sides.

For Israel, it will be a chance to draw world attention for something other than its ongoing illegal settlement activity in the occupied West Bank.

"The very fact of the visit is a success," an Israeli official told AFP on condition of anonymity, as the tourism ministry said it was hoping the papal pilgrimage would drive a 10 percent increase in Christian tourism.

In fact, the pope's "pilgrimage of prayer", which begins in Jordan on Saturday, will leave a relatively faint footprint in Israel.

His visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories will kick off on Sunday in Bethlehem.

"He is taking a helicopter directly from Jordan to Palestine -- to Bethlehem. It's a kind of sign of recognizing Palestine," Father Jamal Khader of the Latin patriarchate in Jerusalem told journalists.

In Bethlehem, the pope will meet President Mahmoud Abbas and then celebrate mass in front of the Church of the Nativity, traditional birthplace of Jesus, before visiting a nearby refugee camp.

"Knowing who he is, and his sensitivity for all those who suffer, I am sure that he will say something defending all those who are suffering, including the Palestinians who live under occupation," Khader said.

After a short flight to Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport where he will be greeted by Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he will hold a top-level meeting with Orthodox Church leaders, before spending the night in the residence of the papal nuncio in annexed East Jerusalem.

Israel seized East Jerusalem in 1967 and calls the entire city its "united, undivided capital", in a move never recognized by the international community.

It is there that he will spend much of May 26, apart from brief forays into Israel to pay his respects at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and visit Peres and Israel's two chief rabbis.

He will meet Netanyahu at the Vatican-owned Notre Dame complex, which lies on the seam line between east and west Jerusalem, for talks which will touch on politics, an Israeli official said.

"We shall be able to explain to him, from our point of view, what's happening politically in the region," he said.

"We shall explain to him the Iranian threat."

During the visit, the pope is expected to call for a peaceful resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians.

"The purpose of his visit is to encourage us not to be afraid of each other and to talk to each other and live together peacefully," Papal Nuncio Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto told reporters on Sunday.

Any reference he makes to Israeli settlements, to the West Bank separation barrier, or to the question of Palestinian prisoners or refugees will be closely watched by both sides.

'Highly charged'

"Everything will be highly charged politically," said Hind Khoury, a former Palestinian minister for Jerusalem affairs.

Following the collapse of US-led peace talks last month, the PLO has resumed moves to seek recognition for their promised state in the international diplomatic arena and will be looking to the papal visit to provide fresh ammunition.

"This visit will help us in supporting our struggle to end the longest occupation in history," said Ziyyad Bandak, Abbas' adviser for Christian affairs.

"He will have a lunch with Palestinians, with families suffering from the occupation... then he will visit Duheisha refugee camp to witness the suffering of Palestinian refugees," he told Voice of Palestine radio.

For Israel, it was a political slight that "the pope will begin his visit in Palestine and not Israel", he claimed.

"I know that Israeli officials are not happy with this decision."

The very fact of the visit was tantamount to Vatican support for an end to Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories, Bandak said.

"We welcome this visit and consider it as support for the Palestinian people, and confirmation from the Vatican of the need to end the occupation."

Earlier this month, Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal, head of the Roman Catholic church in the Holy Land, warned that hate crimes targeting Muslim and Christian Palestinians was poisoning the atmosphere ahead of the pope's visit, with church officials "very concerned" about the lack of security.
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1 ) Paul Robertson / U,S.A.
19/05/2014 13:49
Though I am not a practicing Catholic I do hope that the popes visit will shine a Light on the need for a quick non-violent resolution by way of which the world along with Israel will see that the only hope for peace will be to restore the Palestinian homeland to the pre- 1967 borders once and for all setting these people free and by any and all means accommodate the refugees and their descendants for the loss of their homes when they were driven and fled their homeland to save their lives.

2 ) @ Paul-1 / Reality
19/05/2014 20:30
[a] There will be NO "resolution (quick or non-violent") to the conflict ever.
[b] There is Nothing "to restore a Palestinian homeland", since it didn't even exist pre-1967, with any borders, so you,
[c] Israel, & the PLO should eye the reality, where if the Pope recognizes a Palestinian state or a Jewish state, nothing will change on the lands, so
[d] There can be No "political gains from papal visit" beyond the borders
of Rome, and neither wants anything within Rome's borders !!!

3 ) Missionary Chuma Nnabuihe / Nigeria
19/05/2014 21:02
As the head of ecumenism and interfaithism, people across different religions of the earth, look up to him for global peace, without knowing that this pagan priest in christian clothing is the anti-christ that bible spoke about.

4 ) Bill / USA
19/05/2014 21:09
It would behoove for both the Israelis & the Palestinian's to work together on the Papal visit. To demonstrate to the rest of the world and themselves what cooperation and brotherhood between the two could and should look like when Peace and love are the priority.

5 ) JoeFattal / USA
20/05/2014 00:21
Make room for the Emperor. We that are about to die salute you. Two gladiators one an Israeli the other a Palestinian will be fighting to death in the arena. Not really. They both been fighting for years, I hope not until death due them apart. The Pope visit will only in my opinion make the matter worse, later. Is it political or religious. For the Pope it has to be religious. The PLO obviously will make it political. And Israel wont know what to make out of it during his visit anyhow.

6 ) Esther Levy / Usa
20/05/2014 08:52
..."The very fact of the visit is a success," an Israeli official told AFP on condition of anonymity, as the tourism ministry said it was hoping the papal pilgrimage would drive a 10 percent increase in Christian tourism... - This shows the mind of Israel, the Pope comes on a pilgrimage of prayer, hoping to bring peace to the region & Israel is forecasting the potential revenue it will bring in monetary terms. Bravo, Israel, keep on the same track!

7 ) Rose Malone / Eire
20/05/2014 09:00
We are all hoping that when his holiness comes to the Holy Land, that he will, through his pilgrimage, raise awareness of the plight of the Palestinian people. Walking in the footsteps of Jesus, we hope he will highlight to the world, the need for Palestine to be returned to the pre 67 borders & for those who have been so cruelly cast out, when they were forced to flee, to be returned safely to their homeland. It is fair they are also compensated for their loss. Now is the time to make peace.

8 ) Rami / Palestine
20/05/2014 09:59
It's unfortunate that he's taking a helicopter from Jordan to Bethlehem. saw Obama and Kerry arrive the same way. If he wants to know what truly goes on around here, He should spend 2 hours traveling from Jericho to Bethlehem via car (which is only 30 minutes away if you're Israeli), going past Ma'ale Adumim, through Ezariya & around Wadi Nar. Maybe he should experience the checkpoints, refugee camps & slums. Let him visit Aida & Dheisha refugee camps in Bethlehem or see the Hebron ghost town.

9 ) JoeFattal / USA
20/05/2014 20:59
Lets face it, the Pope isn't but a political figure anyhow. He is far from been a religious leader as the Jewish extremists in Israel are religious. In reality he has the privilege to travel anywhere, but obviously not to convert anyone or to promote his catholicism around the world. So his visit to Israel is to bring peace in the region that Kerry and others fail to achieve. But Israel is in their own dilemma to create a Jewish state, and what that got to do with Catholicism. Nothing.
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