Photo by Michael Swan.

Bethlehem residents scramble for Pope Francis Mass tickets

By 
  • May 22, 2014

BETHLEHEM - Come Sunday morning about 9,000 Christians who have been granted tickets will form Pope Francis' congregation on Manger Square in Bethlehem. Around, above and behind them will be as many as 800 journalists.

The congregation won't be just Bethlehemites. Christians from all around the region, including many foreign religious resident in the Holy Land, have been granted tickets.

What was left for Bethlehem Christians was a pretty slim number of tickets, several Bethlehem residents have told The Catholic Register. That means some in the community have been practicing the ancient Arab art of "wasta," what we would call "pull" or "juice" — the exploitation of personal connections and influence for advantage.

But whether they will be in the folding chairs under the high, hot sun (weather forecasts call for a 25 degree high, but the sun at this latitude can make it seem much hotter), or standing for two hours, or watching it on television in their living rooms a few blocks away, Bethlehem Christians are in a state of excited anticipation.

Michael Sansur, executive vice president of Bethlehem University, didn't have enough "wasta" to land a ticket, but he and his wife Rula believe the Pope's presence in Bethlehem will be extremely important for Palestinian Christians who are now estimated to form just 1.2 per cent of the Palestinian population.

"It’s a message I think to the world," said Michael Sansur. "That there are Christians here and this is the birthplace of Christianity. And we are not forgotten. We like to pride ourselves that we are the descendants of the first Church."

For Sansur, whose family fled West Jerusalem in 1948, the diminishing influence and coherence of Christian Palestinians is the real issue behind the meeting of Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew's meeting in Jerusalem.

The Christian population of Bethlehem is down to about 30 per cent, while the Christian population of Palestine hovers around one per cent. In part the change is because of emigration, but the larger part is attributable to stunning fertility rates among Muslim women — on average more than five children for every adult woman.

"They have more babies," said Sansur.

In Sansur's view the Pope is coming to bolster a Christian minority who face an uncertain future.

"And so, we are the only remaining testimony of that first Church, the mother Church. So the Pope coming here is a sign of support and encouragement," he said.

"It’s a message to the whole world," said Rula Sansur.

Others have more specific hopes for the Pope's appearance in Bethlehem.

"Any visit that will end the occupation will be positive," said Zoughbi Zoughbi, founder and director of Wi'am, an NGO dedicated to conflict resolution and non-violent resistance to occupation.

"The Pope will be having a prophetic voice and prophetic action. The Holy See has that dimension," said Zoughbi.

While he hopes the Pope's visit will address the political situation, Zoughbi's hopes go beyond the political.

"He’s coming to uplift our hopes. We need the voice of those moral powers in the world to say we need at least to take care of our fellow faithful members and to put an end to the suffering of that community," he said. "Maybe my theology is wrong, but this is what I believe as a Christian. Jesus said whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters you are doing it to me. He said the Lord has anointed me to bring the good news, to release the captives, to release the prisoners. This is the social Gospel that I believe, in addition to the personal salvation. I believe in the message of Christ. Otherwise I wouldn't say I was a Christian."

As a young Muslim who struggles to pick up enough work to make it from week to week, 22-year-old Saif Sobeh isn't so sure any religious authority will respond the the plight of ordinary Bethlehemites.

"The Pope, he doesn’t listen to all the people. If he listened to the Palestinian people there are many, many things to talk about with him," said Sobeh.

But Sobeh's view isn't shared by many. Bethlehem University Master's student Narmeen Soudah believes all Palestinians need a message of hope from Pope Francis.

"In the end, our presence here is really important. We have to stay," she said.

"The message started here. Everything started here," said Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun. "This is a completion of the discourse of faith."

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