Bethlehem: Christians play tombola to allocate last remaining tickets

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Many Christians in the Holy Land have had their hopes dashed: The Pope of the peripheries is about to arrive and they won’t get to see him.

The tickets to Pope Francis’ Mass in Bethlehem next Saturday have become precious goods that are hard to come by. To ensure it’s not just friends of friends who manage to get their hands on them, Palestinian Christians have come up with some very imaginative ways of distributing them fairly: Yesterday parishioners in Beit Jala bet them in games of tombola; today they raffled them off,” said Mario Cornioli, a Tuscan priest “on loan” to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, wrote on his blog “Abuna”.

Manger Square in front of the Church of the Nativity will be able to hold 10,000 people at most, including visitors from Jerusalem and Galilee. “649 permits were sent to the Gaza strip parish which is home to 1,800 Christians, most of whom are Orthodox,” Fr. Cornioli told Vatican Insider. But the Israeli authorities have not granted passes to entire families, in some cases they have granted them to children but not their parents and vice versa. So many will have to miss the Pope’s mass. All those aged between 16 and 35 have been left out too. Of Gaza’s young people, therefore, only a select few teens will get to see the Pope. The young couple from Gaza who were meant to attend the Pope’s lunch with Palestinian families will also be staying home. Both of the spouses are under 35 but they didn’t get a permit. A 37-year-old woman will be going instead of them.

Those who managed to get hold of a pass are filled with excitement and anticipation ahead of the event. But there is a growing disappointment and sense of unease among the many Christians in the Holy Land, particularly in Galilee: they know they won’t get to see or pray with their beloved Pope,” Fr. Mario explained. “And it’s a pity that this visit brings sadness and disappointment to the hearts of our fellow Christians, when it should be bringing them joy and happiness.”

Pope Francis’ gestures and words have really touched the hearts of Palestinian Christians. He talks about the peripheries and frontiers and they often feel they are on such margins. He refers to the Church as a “field hospital” that treats people’s wounds.

They feel embraced along with the many wounds, small and big, that have marked them as Christians, Arabs and Palestinians. But the brevity of the Pope’s visit which is focused on commemorating the ecumenical meeting between Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, has massively narrowed the window of opportunity for members of the local Christian community to meet with the Bishop of Rome. Even the Pope’s brief meeting with Palestine’s Catholic parish priests had in theory been cancelled but it should now take place in the main building of the Latin Patriarchate. Jerusalem’s Christians seem to have it worst off: for security purposes, a curfew has been scheduled for Monday 26 May so no one will be able to greet the Pope with a welcome celebration when he arrives in the Old City,” Fr. Cornioli confirms.

In recent days, a group of Christians from Jerusalem, led by some parish priests from the local Latin Catholic Church in San Salvatore, expressed their disappointment to the Church authorities about not being able to even see the Pope pass by; “It is unacceptable that the Pope should go through the streets of the Christian neighbourhood and find them empty and with no sign of life” they wrote in a letter addressed to the Vatican Nuncio Giuseppe Lanzarotto. “But it seems that nothing can be done to compromise this famous “security” which has now become the god, to which we must sacrifice everything. As usual our small community will have to pay the price of this.” According to the priest, “Pope Francis will enter a ghost town and will not find one child to greet him, no little old lady to touch him, he will have no sick people to greet or someone to exchange his zucchetto with. This is what the Pope who loves greeting everyone, embracing, smiling, talking and meeting people will be faced with,” Abuna Mario writes on his blog.

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Gianni Valente