Pope Francis Kicks Off Middle East Visit Fraught With Danger for Israel

Some Fear Fallout From High-Profile Palestine Stop

getty images

By Philip Pullella and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

Published May 24, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

(Reuters) — Pope Francis called for urgent steps to end Syria’s three-year-old civil war as he arrived in neighboring Jordan on Saturday, starting a Middle East trip aimed at bringing hope to the region’s dwindling Christian population.

Addressing Jordan’s King Abdullah on his first visit as pope to the Holy Land, Francis praised the Western-backed kingdom for its efforts to “to seek lasting peace for the entire region”.

“This great goal urgently requires that a peaceful solution be found to the crisis in Syria, as well as a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said, departing from his prepared text to describe the king as “an artisan for peace”.

More than 160,000 people have been killed in Syria’s conflict and millions have fled to neighboring countries, including Jordan. The refugees are from all faiths, but Christians feel threatened by radical Sunni Muslims now leading the military insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad.

After meeting King Abdullah, Francis held a Mass in an Amman stadium and was later due to meet some of those Syrian refugees in Bethany on the Jordan, the place where according to tradition Jesus was baptized, as well as others who fled violence in Iraq.

Conflict across the region, including the Arab revolts of recent years and the civil war in Syria, has accelerated a historic decline in its Christian community.

While local worshippers hoped Francis would use his fleeting visit to call attention to their plight, they doubted he could do much to help just weeks after the collapse of the latest Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

In Israel and the occupied West Bank, where the pope will travel on Sunday and Monday, more Palestinian Christians are looking to leave, accusing Israel of eroding their economic prospects and hobbling their freedom of movement.

The Jewish state denies discriminating against its Arab citizens and cites security reasons for curbs on Palestinians’ movement in the West Bank.

Francis, leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, will also use the trip to appeal to members of all religions to work together for peace.

“Religious freedom is in fact a fundamental human right and I cannot fail to express my hope that it will be upheld throughout the Middle East and the entire world,” he said.

“FALSE CLAIMS”

Abdullah, whose Hashemite family traces its descent from the Prophet Mohammad, said Islam was a religion of harmony, mercy and justice, and that Jordan had worked to reject “the false claims of those who spread hatred and sow division.

“…Let me say, forthrightly, that Arab Christian communities are an integral part of the Middle East,” he said.

At the Jordanian stadium where Francis delivered the Mass, an enthusiastic crowd of around 20,000 endured high heat to listen to the pope speak from a platform shaded by a canopy in the yellow and white colors of the Vatican, and flanked by pictures of the pope and the king.

But alongside their celebrations, some expressed fears for their future in a region where Christianity is rooted.

Thamer Boulus, a 45-year-old Iraqi teacher, said he fled the city of Mosul with his family because he was receiving death threats as a Christian. “I want to immigrate anywhere there is safety for me and my family. Religious extremism is threatening Christians,” he said.

Ahead of his visit, the Vatican said Francis wanted to travel in a normal car and would eschew bulletproof vehicles. He traveled from the airport in a modest white car and arrived at the stadium on the back of an open-topped vehicle.

On Sunday morning Francis flies by helicopter to Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, making a six-hour visit to what the Vatican’s official program calls “the State of Palestine,” a terminology Israel rejects.

In 2012, the Vatican angered Israel by supporting a vote in the United Nations General Assembly to grant Palestinians de facto statehood recognition. Israel argues such a move should only come through negotiations.

Palestinians regard the pope’s visit, and the fact that he is flying in directly from Jordan instead of going through Israel’s security barrier from Jerusalem, as a major morale boost. Jordan, a majority of whose population is of Palestinian origin, signed a peace accord with Israel 20 years ago.

To underscore his conviction that all three great monotheistic faiths can live together in the region and help to tackle the political stalemate, Francis has enlisted a rabbi and an Islamic leader to be part of a traveling papal delegation for the first time.

Francis, the first non-European pope in 1,300 years, will head on to Israel on Sunday night for a 32-hour visit packed with 16 events.

Threats to Christians have been scrawled by suspected Jewish radicals on Church property in the Holy Land. One read: “Death to Arabs and Christians and all those who hate Israel.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.