The Pope’s Risky Trip to the Holy Land

As Pope Francis travels to Amman, Bethlehem, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem this weekend, he’ll encounter the faithful and the hateful.

Baz Ratner/Reuters

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis is a good news staple in the global press and his presence fills St. Peter’s Square to the brim each Wednesday and Sunday for his regular appearances. Even Roman graffiti artists love him. One recently painted the bespectacled pontiff as a flying Super Pope.

But when Francis visits the Holy Land this weekend, he may be in for a rude awakening. Just a week ago, graffiti artists in Jerusalem painted a very different message, writing “Jesus is garbage” on a Roman Catholic church wall. A few days later, someone else wrote “Death to Arabs and Christians and all those who hate Israel” on the outside of the Office of the Assembly of Bishops at the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem, where Francis will be meeting the Israeli prime minister and other leaders in just a few days.

In response to the anti-Christian street sentiment and chatter that there may be trouble when the pope comes to town, Israel’s Shin Bet security detail quickly swept up all the known right-wing activists who could cause trouble, putting some in protective custody and slapping restraining orders on others. A spokesperson for Shin Bet told Reuters they were restrained because they may cause “disruptions during the pope’s visit and be involved in provocative illegal acts.”

Not exactly the warm welcome Francis has become accustomed to. This is Francis’s second trip abroad, ahead of an eclectic future calendar including trips to South Korea this fall and to the Philippines and the United States in 2015. His first trip was to Brazil last summer for World Youth Day, where he drew 3 million Catholic revelers who came to catch a glimpse of the first Latin American pontiff. Twice, when his Fiat got stuck in traffic, his car was swarmed by Catholics hoping to get close to their leader, with no incident or security threat. There’s just no way the trip to the Middle East could be so reverent, or even so friendly.

The Vatican has insisted that the journey to the Holy Land is “purely spiritual” for the pontiff, but, writing in The Boston Globe Vatican expert John Allen says it will instead be a “political high-wire act.” Allen cautions that the Christian population in the Middle East, which has fallen from 20 percent to roughly 4 percent over the last century, will see the pope’s message as “a chance to urge believers to hold on, and to persuade them that the world’s most important Christian leader has their back.”

But the message might fall on deaf ears. The pope, who is traveling with two trusted friends from Argentina—one of whom happens to be a rabbi, the other a Muslim scholar—has said he will shun the use of bullet-proof vehicles or high security so he can be “close to the people.”

His published schedule says he is working on an interfaith dialogue agenda, with key visits to Jewish, Muslim and Christian spots and more than 30 engagements scheduled for his whirlwind three-day visit, which begins on Saturday in Jordan. (The Hashemite Kingdom has created a dedicated website for the short papal visit.) He will make what the Vatican describes as a “courtesy visit” to the King and Queen of Jordan before saying mass at the International Stadium in Amman. He will then meet with disabled Jordanians and Syrian refugees.

On Sunday morning, the Holy Father will be helicoptered from Amman to Bethlehem, where he will meet with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, an encounter some in Israel have interpreted as a slight. The Israeli National News quoted the pope’s friend and Argentinian parliamentarian Rabbi Sergio Bergman as claiming “the pope intends to define himself as the ‘Che Guevera of the Palestinians’ and support their ‘struggle and rights.’”

He will then preside over a Holy Mass at Manger Square in Bethlehem, which is being billed as the headline event of the trip, before lunching with Palestinian families at a Franciscan convent. After a private visit to the nativity grotto, he will meet with refugee children from the camps of Deheisheh, Aida and Beit Jibrin.

After that, the pope heads to Tel Aviv to begin the Israeli leg of his journey, starting with a signing ceremony for a declaration marking the 50th anniversary of the meeting between his predecessor Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenogoras, which the Vatican has deemed as the underlying purpose of the trip. He will then dine with the patriarchs and bishops in Jerusalem.

Monday morning Francis will visit the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem in a nod to the substantial Muslim community in the Holy Land. He will then visit the Western Wall and lay a wreath at the Holocaust memorial at Mount Herzl. As a Latin American, his gesture will likely be better received than that of his German predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.

The rest of his morning will be spent visiting the two chief rabbis at the Jerusalem Great Synagogue before meeting first with Israeli President Shimon Peres and then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The rest of the afternoon will be spent meeting with priests and nuns in the church of Gethsemane at the foot of Mount of Olives before boarding a special El Al flight back to Rome.

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If all goes well, the trip will be deemed a success, even if Francis can’t command the massive crowds to which he is accustomed. “The purpose of his visit is to encourage us not to be afraid of each other and to talk to each other and live together peacefully,” says Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto, whose official title is Papal Nuncio or Holy See ambassador to Israel, Jerusalem and Palestine. And if Francis can pull that off, he will prove himself a super pope indeed.