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May 13th, 2009
04:00 PM ET

Pope in the Middle East – Who is he there for?

John L. Allen Jr.
CNN Senior Vatican Analyst
Bethlehem, Palestinian Territories

Perceived injustices often produce one of two effects in people. It can either breed determination to rise above one’s circumstances, or it can leave someone angry and disillusioned. Two vignettes from around the edges of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the Aida refugee camp in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank illustrate each option.

I was in the Aida Palestinian refugee camp just north of Bethlehem on the West Bank today to cover the pontiff’s visit, a highlight of day five of his week-long visit to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

Aida was opened shortly after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and is today home to around 5,000 Palestinians, most of whom were driven from homes in and around the city of Jerusalem. This sprawling cluster of concrete structures abuts a 30-foot-tall “security barrier,” or wall, erected by Israel as a buffer between itself and the Palestinian Territories. Officials of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, which supports several activities in the camp, say it’s badly over-crowded.

Sofia Ramadan, 15, is one of the voices I met today. She grew up in the Aida camp, and attended the school whose courtyard hosted today’s papal event. She was part of a dance troupe which performed for the pope and for President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian National Authority.

Ramadan’s family comes from Al-Malha, a traditionally Arab village which is today a neighborhood in southwest Jerusalem. It’s located only about 10 miles from the camp on the West Bank, but Ramadan said she’s never been there because she lacks the necessary permits. A Muslim, she also said she’s never been to the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City, one of the three holiest sites in global Islam.

Ramadan said that when the wall was built, a grove of olive trees where the students in the Aida school used to play was bulldozed. She also remembers the Israeli incursion into the West Bank in 2002, when she and her schoolmates were periodically under lock-down for fear of being hit by stray bullets.

Nonetheless, Ramadan remains optimistic about her personal future. She said she’s planning to study to be a journalist, “so that I can tell the world what’s going on here in Palestine.” Her best friend Fida Malash, 16, wants to be an engineer, “so I can rebuild some of the houses around here.”

Despite their frustrations at conditions of life on the West Bank, the two girls seemed basically happy and optimistic, determined to do something constructive – very much in the spirit of Pope Benedict’s appeal today to youth to resist the temptation to violence, and instead to make “a lasting contribution to the future of Palestine.”

For Ramadan, reflecting her upbeat spirit, the pope’s visit was a grand occasion. Though a Muslim, she said she was “very happy” the pontiff had come to her home.

That wasn’t quite the review Benedict drew from Rana Bishara, a local Palestinian artist who was present at the Aida even. Despite being a Catholic, Bishara bluntly charged that the pope has “betrayed us” on this trip.

“The whole thing is entirely for Israel, period,” Bishara said. She accused the pope and the Vatican of placating Israeli sensitivities – for example, not protesting more forcefully when Israeli authorities told Aida residents that the stage for Benedict’s visit could not be erected directly under the security wall, but had to be moved across the street into the school courtyard, ostensibly for security reasons.

Bishara said she sees herself as “Arab and Palestinian first, Christian second.”

“When we pass through the Israeli checkpoints, nobody makes a distinction between Christians and Muslims,” she said. “We have one nation, one destiny.”

In that regard, Bishara charged that Benedict has shown more compassion for Jewish suffering in the past than Palestinian suffering in the present.

“The pope visited the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, but we’ve been living the Holocaust for 61 years,” Bishara said, referring to the events of 1948 which led to the creation of the State of Israel and the beginning of exile for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

I pressed Bishara, pointing out that Benedict has supported Palestinian statehood, called the security wall “tragic,” and even compared the plight of Palestinian refugees to the baby Jesus and his parents, Jesus and Mary, who according to the Bible had to take refuge in Egypt.

Bishara, however, insisted that the pope should do more than make statements. She was bitter, for example, that Benedict restricted himself to meeting with a small group of Christians from the Gaza Strip at the end of his Mass this morning in Bethlehem. Instead, she said, he should have gone there himself.

“How many people in Gaza have to be killed before they wake up?” she asked.

In general, Bishara said, she’s now convinced that the pope – her pope – is “in the pocket of Israel.”

To be sure, the teenage Ramadan and the adult Bishara likely agree on many specific grievances, and they probably harbor many of the same dreams for their people. Nonetheless, one can’t help being struck by the way optimism seems to prevail with one, bitterness bordering upon despair the other.

A Vatican spokesperson said today that Benedict XVI is in the Middle East, at least in part, simply to listen to the experiences of the people he’s encountering. Assuming the pope heard the voices of Palestinians such as Ramadan and Bishara while he was in Aida, then he got a crash course in both the promise and the peril of this long-suffering region of the world.


Filed under: 360° Radar • Middle East • Pope Benedict
soundoff (One Response)
  1. Mari

    As a Roman Catholic, I am deeply offended by the pope. He is clearly out of touch with the world! First, in Africa, he said that "condoms don't work to prevent AIDS". In the Middle-East, instead of being a peacemaker, he upsets both Palestinians and Israelis!

    May 13, 2009 at 1:37 pm |