Photo by Michael Swan.

Day 8: The politics of Pope Francis' visit

  • May 19, 2014

If there's anything religion is not, it is most certainly not a refuge from politics. Pope Francis is still several days from arriving in the Holy Land, but the politics of his visit are already raging.

The signs and banners around Bethlehem's Manger Square have been strategically placed and worded for maximum political advantage. Pope Francis will celebrate Mass surrounded by political slogans.

The pope is being greeted in Bethlehem by Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas as one head of state greeting another. The Palestinian Authority, in charge of organizing the security and logistics for the pope's Bethlehem visit has ensured television cameras cannot miss signs that read "Welcome Pope Francis to the State of Palestine."

Canada is one of nine countries that voted against recognizing the State of Palestine at the United Nations in 2012. One hundred and thirty-eight countries voted in favour and there were 41 abstentions.

So far, Palestine is a state that has no army, airforce or navy, issues no currency, controls no border, has no airport. By joining UNESCO, FIFA and other world bodies, using their own internet domain (Canada's is .ca, Palestine's is .ps) the Palestinians are making a political claim they hope will put them on a more equal footing with Israel in negotiations. They are tired of Israel's attempts to decide when negotiations will happen, on what subjects and with whom.

In coffee shops and at taxi stands, Palestinians laugh at their state. But they insist upon it and know the Pope's visit is another chance to make a claim that drives Israelis (and Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird) crazy.

Of course, as gracious hosts, the State of Palestine has installed a temporary stage at one end of Manger Square so the TV cameras will be able to see the pope above the crowd. Stage left is a giant banner which declares "Return is our right and our will."

In the now-suspended negotiations between Israel and the State of Palestine, the one thing Israel insists it cannot do is grant refugees the right to return, to repossess properties in Israel they fled or were chased out of during the 1948 war. If enough Palestinians are allowed to claim their property and citizenship in Israel the Jewish majority within the country will soon disappear. The whole idea of Israel as a homeland for Jews – a refuge in a world that has persecuted Jews for more than a millennia and tried to wipe them off the face of Europe during the Second World War – would disappear.

Palestinians claim it as a right granted to all refugees everywhere else in the world, defended by international law. Palestinians say a real democracy does not try to engineer a fake majority to privilege one ethnicity or religion.

But there's more politics than just the status of the two-state solution.

In Lebanon, Cardinal Bechara Rai has invited himself along on the pope's visit to Jerusalem. Vatican officials make it clear it is the Cardinal's initiative. The armed political party Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed movement that holds the balance of power in Lebanon, has condemned Rai's visit as "an historic sin." Rai's travel plans dominate Lebanese front pages.

What could be controversial about a Catholic Cardinal, Patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church, making a pilgrimage with the pope to the city where Jesus preached in the temple? It would, says Hezbollah, by implication recognize the State of Israel. Lebanon has been at war with Israel since 1948 and in official communications Lebanon refers to Israel as "the entity."

Rai's ascension to the reality of a country surrounding Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Nazareth and Haifa is a political sin in Lebanon and most of the Arab world.

It's not just the Arabs who will feel political discomfort. Pope Francis intends to visit Deheishe refugee camp in Bethlehem, home to 13,000 refugees since 1949. Israel knows the refugees are still there. They are a central issue in negotiations with the Palestinians. However, they prefer international visitors not to speak of it, let alone visit them with the world's media in tow.

Then there's the issue of the upper room, where tradition has it that Jesus celebrated the last supper. Rumours are flying in Israel that the government of Israel is about to transfer custody of the site to the Church. Both the Vatican and Israeli officials deny this, though there may be some easing of restrictions that limit Mass to twice a year in the room – Holy Thursday and Pentecost.

Why do Israelis care about who controls a room in a Crusader-era building whose custody passed from the Franciscans to the Ottoman empire in the 16th century, and thereafter to the British Mandate authorities and Israel in the 20th century?

The trouble is, if Israel concedes any of the properties it took over during the 1948 war it opens up legal challenges by Palestinians who still have deeds to their Jerusalem homes and businesses stored in safe deposit boxes.

Pope Francis will say Mass in the upper room, just as Pope Benedict did in 2009. And maybe there will be some form of liturgical prayer allowed in the room daily – just upstairs from the site many Jews believe is the tomb of King David.

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