Palestinians are decorating Bethlehem with posters meant to show the world about the plight of Palestinians. Photo by Michael Swan.

Bethlehem posters for Pope Francis visit illustrate Palestinian plight

  • May 21, 2014

BETHLEHEM - Just like any parish decorating the church for a special occasion, Palestinians are decorating Bethlehem in advance of Pope Francis' visit on May 25. But these decorations are also a message to the world about the plight of Palestinians.

Giant posters ringing Manger Square where Pope Francis will celebrate Mass feature combinations of recent news photographs with paintings by baroque masters including Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Raphael.

In the Dheisheh Refugee Camp, where the Pope will visit with families, the posters combine recent news photos with pictures from the camp's beginnings in 1948 and 1949.

"We simply wanted to use art to beautify the places the Pope is to visit without disguising the fact that these places, and the people who live in them, face oppression and hardship on a daily basis," said Palestinian Museum director Jack Persekian.

The images of bombed-out landscapes, the towering, concrete Israeli security wall and Israeli soldiers arresting and shooting Palestinians are meant to make a connection between Palestinian life under Israeli occupation and stations of the cross that might be found on the walls of any parish.

"The paintings interpret episodes from the life of Christ as a means of glorifying God and spreading His teachings, but the photographs glorify nothing," said Persekian.

They may be just new photographs, but they "bear witness to mundane episodes in the often uncomfortable and difficult lives of Palestinians," he said.

But the Ramallah museum director also wants people to see a deeper connection between the European masterworks and the news photos.

"Biblical paintings are, among other things, allegories of the Christian values — charity, mercy, compassion and faith in a just and loving God," he said. "There is suffering and sacrifice, but they hold out a hope of eternal life. What these photographs documenting every day life in Palestine show, however, is a conspicuous absence of Christian compassion, and hope glimpsed only in the courage and humanity of their subjects."

Rather than random combinations of photos and paintings that have nothing to do with one another, the montages around Manger Square have a story to tell.

"A single tale of the tension between Christian values and the plight of many of the world's Christians — between the sanctity of the Holy Land and the violence it has suffered," said Persekian.

Bethlehem's mayor expects Pope Francis to speak about the suffering of Palestinians and urge a just peace.

"We hope, we hope and we expect from Pope Francis, he will utter and express the desire of Palestine to live in justice and to live in justified peace. It is the moment. We hope that he seizes the moment," Mayor Vera Baboun told a small gathering of international and local press at Bethlehem's city hall May 22.

Baboun pointed to the United Nations' recognition of Palestine as an observer state as a major step forward that she hoped Pope Francis would build upon.

"This year marks the reconciliation of the Palestinians, the national reconciliation supported by the UN acknowledgement that Palestine is a state. It's very important to see this in order to work on a peace, a just peace," Baboun said.

Palestinian Authority Minister of Tourism Rula Ma'ayah echoed the mayor's hope that the Pope's visit brings peace.

"As Christians and as Muslims we are together in welcoming his holiness," Ma'ayah said.

Pope Francis' visit comes at a critical time in the development of a free Palestinian state, said Baboun.

"Let us all try to witness a peace that Palestine desires in the world. It is the only occupied nation in the world. Let us seize the moment," she said.

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