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Can the pope help Christian Palestinians?

The pope’s visit to Israel/Palestine has thrown the spotlight on the troubled Christian Palestinian community, a group normally only considered in the western media at Christmas when the world’s media descends on Bethlehem.

However, the feelings of the local faithful about Pope Benedict XVI’s pilgrimage are quite mixed, an ambiguity caused by an uncertainty about the Vatican’s agenda for the visit, and the political atmosphere post-Gaza assault.

Plenty of Christians, especially Catholics, are understandably happy from a personal, religious point of view. Yet for many, the sense of celebration is tempered by a hope that the pope’s visit will contribute something to their dire day-to-day reality.

On one level, there is the belief among some that the very fact of the pope’s visit will be an encouragement to the dwindling church, a point of view expressed by the Christian mayor of Bethlehem. There also specific relief initiatives, such as housing projects funded by the Vatican in the Occupied Territories, which while small in scale, can be seen as “a gesture to show the local Christians that the Holy See is not indifferent to their problems.”

But there is also the desire for the pope to speak out with “words of condemnation and protest” against the Israeli occupation, particularly in light of alleged war crimes in Gaza, as well as Israel’s policies in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The pressure is not just from the local church; Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP), a 22-member interdenominational grouping in the US, sent a letter to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to coincide with the pope’s trip, urging action on issues such as “restrictive Israeli residency and family unification regulations in East Jerusalem” and restrictions on freedom of movement.

While the pope is in theory making a “spiritual pilgrimage”, Christian Palestinians are not shy of pleading for political advocacy. The head of the Evangelical Lutheran church in Jordan and Palestine, Bishop Munib Younan, speaking about the trend of emigration, expressed the desire for “His Holiness to have a voice [that] rejects occupation, violence, [Israeli] settlements and all other violation of human rights.”

While some groups, like the Coalition for Jerusalem, have also called for the pope to protest Israeli land confiscation and occupation, some Christian Palestinians requested that the visit be cancelled altogether.

To that effect, one group of Christians launched a petition in February, saying that any visit to Israel now would merely be an image-booster for Israel, minimising the suffering of Palestinians under occupation. A different petition, which attracted almost 2800 signatories, was also organised calling (unsuccessfully) for the pope to visit Gaza.

Yet while the Pope’s visit can seem like an opportunity for Christian Palestinians to make their voice heard as both a religious minority and as part of a people group fighting for self-determination, others are not so optimistic. Much of the analysis about the pope’s trip has focussed on an apparent determination by the Vatican to improve relations with both Muslims and Jews – Christian Arabs fear, at their expense.

The Christian Palestinians, now only around 2% of the population in the Occupied Territories, are a community in crisis. Of course, the same could also be said of any other group of Palestinians, but the diminishing size of the Christian minority has stirred fears that the historic church in Palestine could be heading for statistical non-existence.

The main problem is emigration. The driving factors is economic and professional. A stunted, aid-dependent Palestinian economy, struggling to survive under occupation, cannot offer the kinds of opportunities that an often educated, business-orientated class of people (the community is disproportionately represented in the middle/upper class) is seeking.

Most Christian Palestinians live in the Bethlehem-Beit Jala-Beit Sahour triangle, East Jerusalem, and the Ramallah area. The Israeli occupation has rendered these regions twisted splinters of territory, cutting off Palestinian Jerusalem from the West Bank, and physically fragmenting the Christian community. Israel has made it illegal for Palestinians with East Jerusalem IDs to live with a West Bank ID-carrying spouse.

Just last week, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs released a report detailing how Israel’s annexation and colonisation of Palestinian land, coupled with the separation wall and settlement infrastructure, means that only 13% of the area of Bethlehem governorate is available for Palestinian use.

Interestingly, many westerners believe that the emigration of Christian Palestinians is caused by a campaign of persecution by “Islamic fundamentalists”, or a climate of hostility between Christian and Muslim Palestinians in general. In fact, different surveys show that a vast majority of locals see the Israeli occupation as the primary reason. A handful of fanatics – or opportunistic criminals – have been behind the isolated attacks on Christians in recent years.

Reflecting on the pope’s public messages since his Middle East trip began, an opinion piece in the Jordan Times published at the weekend observed that “peace and coexistence are more than concepts, they are actions”. Perhaps constrained by his role, the pope is unlikely to be able to offer more than symbolic gestures of support and platitudes: Christian and Muslim Palestinians alike hoping for more will be disappointed.

First published on the Guardian’s Comment is free.

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