May 12th 2014
WILL Jerusalem’s bustling Old City be turned into a ghost town when Pope Francis comes to the Holy Land on May 25th? That is what worries some of his officials. While the Palestinians are opening up the streets of Bethlehem and providing the pope with an open car when he visits their side of the biblical land, Israel is taking no chances. It is planning a strict permit regime, insisting that the Holy Father travels in an armoured car, with the public kept at arm’s length behind a security cordon. Thousands of police are to be drafted in. “The pope wants to see the people,” protests a papal spokesman. “But Christians won’t be able to see him...Israel is turning the holy sites into a military base.”
Tensions rose in the Old City over Easter, as Israel’s police set quotas for access to Jesus’s burial site, the Holy Sepulchre. They issued wristbands and badges to let Christian groups through the gates of the Old City at allotted times, and set up barriers in the Christian quarter. “Move back,” Commander Golan told pilgrims, as thousands sought to attend the rite of the Holy Fire on Easter Saturday, when believers say fire erupts from Jesus’ tomb, setting thousands of church candles aflame.
The Israelis say they must be strict because they are responsible for keeping the peace. In 1834 hundreds were killed in a stampede. This year’s Holy Fire flared without injury. But Catholic priests suggest that Israel is using extra security measures to change the Old City’s status, providing for unfettered access to Jews, while limiting the number of Christian worshippers.
Whereas the police held back Christian pilgrims, say the priests, the gates for Jews celebrating Passover, which coincided this year with Easter, were opened wide. Robert Serry, a Dutch diplomat who is the UN’s Middle East envoy, whose way was briefly barred, protested against what he said was Israel’s hindrance of religious freedom. “It is ridiculous that Israel opens Jerusalem for foreign tourists, while millions of Palestinian Christians and Muslims are being banned from entering their occupied capital,” said Nabil Shaath, a confidant of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.
Israel has tried to sweeten the papal visit by agreeing to discuss whether Catholics can worship in the room above David’s Tomb on Mount Zion, where in the 13th century Franciscans declared that Jesus had his last supper. The Vatican, for its part, has abandoned its demand for Jerusalem to be a corpus separatum, or international city, in line with a UN resolution passed in 1947, just before Israel’s creation.
The Israelis say that the number of Christians in Israel is growing, whereas in the Palestinian territories (and elsewhere in the Arab world) it is shrinking. In a move heralded by the Israelis as encouraging the integration of Christians in Israel, the army is planning to call up young Christians. It will be voluntary, says an army spokesman, noting the endorsement of a priest in Nazareth, Father Nadav. But most churchmen have condemned the move, saying it will sow sectarian strife between Israel’s 150,000 Arab Christians and its ten-time bigger number of Muslims. Last year, only 40 of some 2,000 Palestinian Christians who reached conscription-age enlisted.