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.

JERUSALEM - Ahead of Pope Francis’ visit, Jewish religious and nationalist groups plan to demonstrate May 22 to demand that the Israeli government not cede sovereignty or control of the Cenacle, traditionally considered the site of Jesus’ Last Supper.

Published in International

The last fully and completely Christian village in the Middle East is home of the only beer manufactured in the Palestinian Territories. Taybeh beer is named after the town of 1,300 Palestinian Christians within sight of the Dead Sea.

The first Chancellor of Germany, Otto von Bismark, asked how many soldiers the pope has. Nineteenth century politics could be like that. But it's probably the wrong question for this century. Syria, Iraq, even Palestinian intifadas that pit rocks and kids against the most modern military in the region have demonstrated the limitations of boots on the ground. 

May 15 was Nakba Day — not exactly a holiday in the Palestinian West Bank because few people can afford to take a day off work, but a day of commemoration.

In modern, democratic culture there's almost nothing worse than protecting the status quo. it is to be on the side of privilege; to stand against the excluded. There can be no doubt that's a bad thing.

The graffiti which has appeared on the walls of some Jerusalem churches in advance of Pope Francis' visit is nothing new. Which makes in no less ugly and no less crazy.

VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis will be accompanied on his first visit to the Middle East by Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim leader Omar Abboud — two friends from Buenos Aires.

Published in Vatican

Below me the Bridgettine Sisters are chanting the office and it echoes through their guest house built into the hillside entirely out of stone, steel and tile. Outside the muezzin calls Muslims to prayer through giant loudspeakers.

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - With the last round of peace talks between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority stalled if not moribund, some are hoping that a scheduled visit by Pope Francis to the Holy Land in May will breathe new life into the peace process.

Published in International

I was in Bethlehem for one day in 2007, about this time of the year. There was an unnatural calm to the place. Streets were empty. Olive-wood carvings were piling up in the workshops in hope of a return of the tourists. But most shops weren't betting on it. Most were locked tight behind heavy metal doors.

JERUSALEM - Ahead of Pope Francis’ Holy Land visit, the heads of Christian churches in the region plan to launch an international awareness campaign following a series of anti-Christian vandalism believed to have been carried out by Jewish extremists.

Published in International

JERUSALEM - The simmering smell of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves in Catholic parishes

Published in Vatican

VATICAN CITY - On the eve of his first trip to the Holy Land as grand master of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, Cardinal Edwin O’Brien said he hoped to encourage the region’s Christian minority with a message of solidarity from Pope Benedict XVI and other Catholics in the West.

“The Church in the Holy Land has been under unfriendly domination throughout the centuries, and the fact that we still exist there is almost a miracle,” O’Brien told Catholic News Service Nov. 24. “We have to do everything we can as a Catholic people to encourage them and to let them know that we are one with them in their struggle.”

The cardinal left Rome Nov. 26 for a weeklong pilgrimage whose itinerary was to include Jerusalem, Bethlehem, West Bank, and Amman, Jordan. He was scheduled to meet with Jerusalem’s Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, who serves as the order’s grand prior, and other Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim leaders.

The cardinal also planned to visit a few of the more than 100 institutions that the knights support in the region, including parishes, schools and Bethlehem University.

O’Brien was not planning to visit the Gaza Strip and said he did not expect the recent fighting there to affect his visit, which was planned almost a year ago. But he noted that Twal has been on the “frontlines” in aiding victims of the violence there. Eight days of Israeli airstrikes, launched in retaliation for rocket attacks by Palestinian militants, killed more than 150 people and destroyed thousands of dwellings in Gaza before both sides agreed to a ceasefire Nov. 21.

“The Church does not take one side or the other” in the conflict, the cardinal said, “but simply says, do whatever we have to do to bring about peace and a secure way of living for all the people in that land that Christ walked.”

O’Brien noted that the Church’s charitable and educational activities in the Holy Land often serve a greater number of Muslims than Christians, which he said helped the cause of peace. He particularly noted the contribution of Christian Brothers-run Bethlehem University, in the West Bank, to interreligious harmony.

“More than half the students over the years have not been Christian,” the cardinal said. “And they graduate to leading positions in the Holy Land. Their gratitude to the Church and their influence in building bridges between Islam and Christianity, we just can’t measure the worth of that.

“We don’t do it so that we can get credit,” he said. “We do it so that the dignity of every human being will be developed to its highest potential. Bethlehem University, Madaba University, our high schools — all the good work that our people far away are doing to support these institutions is going to pay great dividends in the decades ahead.”

Published in International