by Kate O’Hare
When Pope Francis visited the Holy Land in May, he wasn’t there as an emissary to the Muslims or to the Jews in the area. He visited political and religious leaders of both groups, but he was there to minister to the Christians in the region who are caught between Muslim groups like Hamas and Israeli leaders — neither of whom have the welfare of Christians at the top of their respective agendas.
About 80 percent of the Christians in Israel are Arab and ethnically linked to Palestinian Muslims rather than to Israeli Jews, and many live in areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority. Francis’ goal was to lend support to Christians in the area — who are mostly, but not entirely, Catholic or Orthodox Christians — while not putting them in any more danger from the Muslims around them.
Israel has no policy of persecution against Christian residents, but the ongoing conflict with Palestinian Muslims in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip — Israel has just conducted air raids in response to rocket attacks from Hamas-led Gaza on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem — leaves the Jewish state little time or incentive to worry about the small group of Christians in its borders.
The unrest also throws suspicion on Arab or Palestinian Christians, which can cause difficulties of its own. At Easter, the holiest day on the Christian calendar, when Orthodox flooded into Jerusalem’s Old City for the annual lighting of the Paschal fire, a Washington Post article cited reports that Israeli police officers barred some Palestinian Christians arriving with some high-level diplomats for a procession to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
According to a statement published in the article, Robert H. Serry, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said, “A precarious standoff ensued ending in an angry crowd pushing their way through.”
A spokesperson said the envoy and his companions were held in place for a half-hour before the police retreated.
Serry called on “all parties to respect the right of religious freedom, granting access to holy sites for worshipers of all faiths and refraining from provocations not least during religious holidays.”
Many of the 50,000 or so Orthodox and Catholics living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip need permits to travel to Jerusalem around Easter and other religious holidays, and some claim those permits were not always forthcoming or timely.