(THE NEW YORK TIMES) – Pope Francis plans to give a strong show of support for a sovereign Palestinian state when he makes his first visit to the Holy Land this weekend, becoming the first pontiff to travel directly into the occupied West Bank rather than passing through Israel.
The pope’s decision to fly straight to Bethlehem from Jordan would be a symbolic lift to the Palestinians at any time. But its resonance is even greater given his tremendous popularity, his focus on the downtrodden, and his timing amid the recent collapse of peace talks and the Palestine Liberation Organization’s unity pact with the militant group Hamas.
Francis, who said on Wednesday that his three-day visit was “purely a religious trip,” is striving for balance, and so on Monday he plans to become the first Vatican leader to lay a wreath on the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism. Paying homage to a man who envisioned the Jewish state has become standard for leaders visiting Israel, but the plan has enraged some Palestinians, in another sign of the risks the pope faces in this charged region.
At each stop on the orchestrated itinerary, the Vatican’s focus — to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a historic meeting of Catholic and Orthodox patriarchs — could be overshadowed as all sides dissect Francis’ every action. Already, his effort at ecumenical outreach, traveling with a rabbi and an imam from his native Buenos Aires, has led to criticism that he is not fully engaging local religious leaders.
“You need to look at the gestures, not just at the words,” Patriarch Fouad Twal, the Catholic leader of Jerusalem, said in a recent meeting with reporters. “We cannot have a visit of His Holiness without a political dimension.”
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said that the Vatican’s use of “State of Palestine” terminology with regard to the trip reflected the United Nations General Assembly’s 2012 resolution that upgraded Palestine’s status, and that arriving in Bethlehem by helicopter made pragmatic sense.
Father Lombardi said that the pope was starting his trip in Jordan partly because Saturday is the Jewish Sabbath, when a visit to Israel would be awkward, and that a Mass in Manger Square, the place of Jesus’ birth, was fitting for Sunday.
He also noted that while Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, traveled by land between Israel and the Palestinian territories, he met with the Palestinian leader at the presidential palace in Bethlehem. “The substance is the same,” he said. “This is absolutely not a political reason.”
But in this region, any gesture can be viewed through different lenses. “We’re not very happy about it, but it’s a fact,” Oded Ben Hur, a former Israeli ambassador to the Vatican, said of the pope’s direct flight to Bethlehem from Amman, Jordan. “We wanted them to play it down, but we can understand the complaints.”
In Bethlehem, the pope will meet President Mahmoud Abbas as a peer, underscoring the Vatican’s support for the United Nations’ upgrade of Palestine’s status; welcome banners in Manger Square show the two men and a “State of Palestine” logo.
He will also meet with families hand-picked to highlight the hardships Palestinians face under Israeli occupation, and with children from nearby refugee camps, though he will not enter the camps as predecessors did.
The diplomatic dance means that instead of traversing the half-dozen miles between Bethlehem and the Mount of Olives by motorcade, the pope will take a helicopter to Ben-Gurion International Airport for a presidential welcome demanded by Israeli protocol, and then reboard for a flight to Jerusalem.
In Israel, which is trying to upgrade diplomatic relations with the Vatican established two decades ago, the pope will take a whirlwind tour on Monday, cramming into five hours visits to the Western Wall, Mount Herzl and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, as well as meetings with the president, prime minister, chief rabbis and Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.
His Mass scheduled for Monday evening on Mount Zion, believed to be the site of both Jesus’ last supper and the tomb of King David, has ignited protests by religious Jews and drawn anti-Christian graffiti.
The pope’s refusal of bulletproof vehicles has also created some complications: Vatican officials said Francis had insisted on open-top cars to connect with the public, but the Israeli authorities responded by expanding the security perimeter, which will make it harder for people to glimpse the pontiff. And his short sojourn — the last two popes made eight- and seven-day trips — left the Galilee, home to many Christians and to Christian historic sites like Nazareth, off the itinerary.
“I can tell you I’m not very happy about that,” Wadie Abu Nassar, a former spokesman for the Latin Patriarchate, said at a briefing this week. “Nazareth is Nazareth. He’s called Jesus the Nazarene, after all, not Jesus of Jerusalem.”
Mr. Abu Nassar — an Israeli Arab and a Christian political analyst — and others said Francis himself had largely set the itinerary. The pope, according to a Jordanian priest involved in the planning, declined to have dinner at the Royal Palaces in Amman on Saturday, opting to eat on his plane instead.
The Jordan portion will feature a stadium Mass, the pope’s largest audience on the trip, and a meeting with refugees from Syria and Iraq, whose huge numbers present one of Jordan’s most pressing economic and political problems.
Francis has pleased Jews with his promise to open church archives from the Holocaust era and his friendship with Rabbi Abraham Skorka of Buenos Aires, with whom he collaborated on a book and recorded 31 hours of televised dialogue. “He will try to balance,” Rabbi Skorka, who will accompany the pope in Israel, told reporters in Jerusalem on Wednesday. “This is going to be his policy in his speeches and in his acts. Total balance, this is what he is.”
The pope’s decision to visit Herzl’s grave, 110 years after Pope Pius X harshly rejected Herzl’s appeal for support, is, for Israelis, a significant signal to offset his embrace of Palestine as a state. But Omar Barghouti, a leader of the movement to boycott Israel, called it “a nauseating, offensive act of complicity that Palestinian civil society cannot but condemn.”
Monday’s Mass at Mount Zion has escalated a fight over the holy site. Christians, who have not been allowed to hold formal prayer services there other than a few times a year, want the last-supper room opened for liturgy daily from 6 to 8 a.m. Despite Israel’s insistence that no change in the regulations will be discussed during the pope’s visit, religious Jews plan to denounce such a change with a march Thursday night.
After a recent spate of hate crimes, the Israeli police on Wednesday issued restraining orders requiring that several right-wing Jewish activists stay away from the pope and Jerusalem’s Old City during the visit.
In Bethlehem, after Sunday Mass in Manger Square, the pope is scheduled to have lunch with several Palestinian families: one from a destroyed village, another whose land was confiscated, a third split between Bethlehem and Jerusalem because of travel restrictions, and a teenager who lacks any identification card. “It’s for him to hear the sufferings of the people here,” said Issa Kassissieh, the Palestinian ambassador to the Holy See. “Maybe he will say something about it to the Israeli authorities.”
Later, children from Bethlehem’s refugee camps will sing him two songs during a 15-minute stop at a community center, where organizers were told the pope would have time to shake only three hands.
“I negotiated with them for 15 minutes; they spoke about 10 minutes,” said Mohammed K. Lahham, a Palestinian lawmaker who also met Popes Benedict and John Paul II, and who as a boy of 9 was among the throngs greeting Pope Paul VI in Manger Square. “Frankly, even if he comes just for seconds and leaves, it’s important. It’s an S.M.S. message for the whole world.”