Pope takes armor-plated route into Nazareth

Pope Benedict XVI urged the Christian and Muslim communities of Nazareth, the largest Palestinian city in Israel, to “reject the destructive power of hatred and prejudice” as he addressed 40,000 followers on 14 May at his final public Mass in the Holy Land.

His message of peace and reconciliation for Nazareth, renowned as the town where Jesus grew up, was delivered amid a heavy Israeli security operation that angered many residents.

Huge numbers of armed police sealed off the city center around the Basilica of the Annunciation, built over the spot where Mary is believed to have first heard she was carrying the son of God. In the church the Pope later held talks with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister.

Police said their tough stance was a response to the threat of protests both by Islamic groups opposed to the Pope’s visit and by local activists against the presence of Netanyahu in the city.

Thousands of Christians and Muslims who lined the city’s main street expecting to catch a glimpse of the Pontiff passing in his popemobile were disappointed. Instead, he was smuggled into the Basilica in an armor-plated car with blacked-out windows.

“This is the choice of the police, not the Pope,” said Hanada Shamshoum, 28, a local Roman Catholic clutching her baby. Expressing widely-held sentiments, she added: “Israel wants to make Nazareth look like a dangerous place, but that’s not true.”

In the afternoon, Netanyahu arrived in Nazareth from a surprise meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan. His talks with the Pope came the day after the 82-year-old pontiff spoke in favor of a “sovereign Palestinian homeland” — a position Netanyahu has so far rejected.

According to the daily Haaretz newspaper, Netanyahu asked the Pope to “sound your moral voice against the Iranian threat,” adding that Israel did not want a Palestinian “terror state backed by Iran to rise alongside us.”

In return, the paper said, he suggested Israel would speed up unresolved talks on millions of dollars of tax owed on property in Israel owned by the Vatican as well as easing rules on visits by priests.

Earlier, the Pope held the largest Mass on his trip to the Holy Land on Mount Precipice, a hill overlooking Nazareth where, according to tradition, Jesus miraculously escaped death after a mob threw him from a cliff.

Throughout the night, local and foreign pilgrims poured into an amphitheater specially built for the visit. In contrast to his later secretive dash through Nazareth, the Pope passed leisurely in his popemobile through the crowds on Mount Precipice.

After his previous day in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, where he tried to address Palestinian concerns about the occupation, the Pope steered clear of issues relating to the bigger conflict.

Instead he spoke of the “sacredness of the family” and what he described as “tensions” between Muslims and Christians inside Nazareth and the wider Galilee, where most of Israel’s 140,000 Palestinian Christians are to be found. There are also 1.2 million Palestinian Muslims who hold Israeli citizenship.

“I urge people of goodwill in both communities to repair the damage that has been done,” he said, adding that it was important “to build bridges and find the way to a peaceful coexistence.”

Nazareth’s residents assumed he was referring in particular to a long-running battle over control of a square next to the Basilica, which a small radical Islamic group claims as a holy place. Fights between Christians and Muslims broke out there in Easter 1999, in the run-up to Pope John Paul II’s visit for the millennium.

Police had banned Sheikh Nazim Abu Saleem, who leads the radical group, from entering Nazareth during the Pope’s visit.

The northern wing of the Islamic Movement, the country’s most influential Muslim group, boycotted an interfaith meeting with the Pope on 14 May. The group is angry at his failure to apologize for comments in 2006 in which he quoted a Medieval text denouncing the Prophet Mohammed as evil.

A few signs opposing the German-born Pope’s visit — including one in his native language — were visible along the route to the Basilica.

Some Christians, who often complain of being a double minority — both among Israel’s Jewish majority and among the Palestinian population inside Israel — appreciated the Pope’s message.

But others thought he should also have highlighted the discrimination suffered by all the country’s Palestinian citizens.

“All of us, whether Muslims or Christians, face severe obstacles in most aspects of our lives from the Jewish majority and from the government,” said Yamen Rock, 28, who attended the Mass.

“The Pope should have pointed that out, but politically it would have been messy for him. He seems to be very worried about offending Israel.”

Mariana Kheel, 24, a teacher in a Christian school, said she was disappointed that Pope Benedict, unlike his predecessor John Paul II, had not travelled through Nazareth in the popemobile but supposed he was afraid.

She added: “It is difficult here, but it is our duty as Christians to remain on the land, to uphold Christian traditions in the place where Christianity was born.”

The Pope’s appearance coincided with the 61st anniversary of the Nakba, or Catastrophe, in which most Palestinians were expelled to make way for Israel’s creation.

Elias Chacour, the Greek Catholic Archbishop of the Galilee, raised with the Pope the case of two villages in the Galilee, Biram and Ikrit, whose Christian inhabitants were expelled in 1948. The government has repeatedly reneged on promises to allow them to return.

Nazareth, home to 80,000 people, is traditionally a Christian city but today has a two-thirds Muslim majority, many of them refugees who fled from neighboring villages in 1948.

The Pope is due to leave the Holy Land today after visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Many Muslims also turned out to see the pontiff in Nazareth. “Jesus is a prophet in Islam,” pointed out Kamal Mear, 47, who runs a shawarma restaurant in the city.

He said he was pleased that the Pope was visiting. “When he came here, he knew nothing about Palestinian life. Now he has seen the wall and the occupation at first hand. Maybe he finally understands our reality.”

Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). His website is www.jkcook.net.

A version of this article originally appeared in The National, published in Abu Dhabi.