"Welcome to the Holy Land": Jerusalem awaits Francis' arrival

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Jerusalem awaits Pope’s Francis’ arrival in the Holy Land tomorrow, amidst a sea of over one thousand Vatican and Israeli flags. The first port of call in the Pope’s Middle Eastern voyage will be Amman, followed by Bethlehem and finally the Holy City of the three monotheistic faiths. The white and gold drapes with the Holy See insignia adorn the Notre Dame Centre, the Christian neighbourhood and the Shuk marketplace and run around the walls of the Old City, until the King David and to Rehavia, up until the front of the presidential residence, where Shimon Peres lives. The flag drapery is just as striking in Bethlehem, the only difference is the flag – Palestinian ones are used. “There is a great sense of anticipation among Israelis and Palestinians alike because the know that the Pope speaks frankly and people are very curious to see what he will say and so,” said David Neuhaus, the Patriarchal Vicar for the Hebrew Speaking Catholics.

In addition the flags, thousands of banners of all sizes have been put up too. The message on the them reads: “Welcome to the Holy Land” and shows a picture of Pope Francis and the Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew. This is ahead of the meeting they will have in the Nunciature on the Mount of Olives to mark the 50th anniversary of Paul VI and Athenagoras’ first embrace.

The Israeli authorities have arrested numerous members of Jewish extremist groups who have attacked churches and mosques over the past year: some of them threatened to carry out offensive acts during the Pope’s visit and the police has stopped them, even setting up checkpoints behind the West Bank settlements where many of them reside. To protect the Pope’s visit, the Israeli government has put together a group of 8000 members of the security forces who will be keeping an eye on every single section of the official route.

Many of Jerusalem and Bethlehem’s streets have been closed off because of Francis’ decision to travel in a normal car, instead of a bulletproof vehicle. The Vatican delegation was not happy abou this because “it will create a vacuum around the Holy Father” as Artemio Vitores, the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land’s number two man. “No more than 10 thousand people fit in to Bethlehem’s Manger Square where Pope Francis will celebrate mass on Sunday,” Vitores said. “Many more Christians would have liked to be present,” he added.

Although the Pope’s pilgrimage schedule was decided some time ago and quite quickly, there could still be some last minute surprises: on Sunday the Pope will also visit the refugee camp in Debeishe near Bethlehem, where he will meet with 40 Palestinian children and listen to their stories. “We want to show the Pope what we are going through,” said Mamoun Lahham, director of the Phoenix Center, the camp created by the Jordanians in 1949. In Bethlehem, Francis will lunch with five Palestinian Christian families, one of which will be from Gaza. “But we still don’t know if they will make it because of the very tight security checks,” Neuhaus said.

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Maurizio Molinari