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The Pope's Holy Land Visit Is a Political Act, Whatever He Says or Does

Pope Francis' visit to Palestine, Israel, and Jordan this weekend is political, even if he doesn't say or do anything explicit.
Photo via AP/Nasser Nasser

No one can visit the Middle East without it being at least a little bit political. And especially not the pope.

Pope Francis was adamant on Wednesday that his visit to the Holy Land this weekend is “purely a religious trip,” and his whirlwind 72-hour itinerary has been meticulously planned to reflect a careful balance of political correctness.

The pope is traveling with both an imam and a rabbi and will meet head of states in Jordan, Palestine and Israel. He plans to celebrate mass in both Jordan and Bethlehem and then meet with the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople and the grand mufti in Jerusalem. He will then visit the Western Wall and meet with two chief rabbis in Israel.


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Throughout his many speeches and public appearances, Pope Francis is unlikely to say anything explicitly political, but that does not mean the trip is free of politics. To many Palestinians, Francis' visit is already a vocal message of support.

“The pope coming to Bethlehem will create awareness about our national identity as Palestinians,” Michel Awad, a Palestinian Christian who lives outside the city and runs a non-profit focused on alternative tourism, told VICE News. “This is a national visit that is taken seriously by the world.”

Recognizing Palestine
Although Francis is the fourth Pope to come to the Holy Land in modern times, he is the first to visit Palestine since it was recognized as a state by the UN in November 2012. This detail is significant, in that his visit can be seen as recognition of and support for Palestinian statehood. The pope's meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, for instance, is between two heads of states and as peers.

Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas will receive Pope Francis on May 25 as part of the pontiff’s visit to the holy land.

This endorsement of Palestinian statehood is further reflected in the Vatican’s use of “the State of Palestine” terminology throughout the trip. This can be seen on the Vatican’s official website for the Holy Land visit and also on banners in Bethlehem’s Manger Square featuring an image of Abbas and Francis.


“The goal of the visit is a religious pilgrimage,” Jamal Khader, head of the Latin Patriarch seminary and spokesperson for the pope’s visit to the Palestinian territories, told VICE News. “But he is also recognizing Palestine, so at the same time this has political implications.”

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Historically, relations between the Holy See and Palestine have been close. Yasser Arafat, the longtime leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), visited the Vatican in 1982. The Vatican has been a vocal supporter of a two-state solution and it was one of the first international bodies to establish diplomatic relations with the PLO in 1994. This was followed by a historic agreement in 2000 between the Pope and the PLO that recognized “the inalienable national legitimate rights and aspirations of the Palestinian People” that continues to dictate the relations between Rome and Ramallah.

“We see the pope as a high moral authority that can offer both his moral and political support,” Khader said. “His visit is a gesture against any human suffering and for a better future for all inhabitants for all the people in the holy land.”

Political Implications
In addition to meeting Abbas and other Palestinian leaders, Francis will go to the Dheisheh refugee camp outside Bethlehem and speak with Palestinian refugees. “His visit will show the support from the Vatican for the right of return,” said Awad.


When Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, visited the Holy Land in 2009, he gingerly avoided politics at all costs. When he visited Palestinian refugee camps, the closest he got to anything political was to vaguely blame the situation on “the turmoil that has afflicted this land for decades.”

Even Francis' decision to travel to Bethlehem before he goes to Israel has been interpreted as having subliminal implications. “We’re not very happy about it, but it’s a fact,” Oded Ben Hur, a former Israeli ambassador to the Vatican, told the New York Times in reference to the pope’s direct flight from Amman to Bethlehem. “We wanted them to play it down, but we can understand the complaints.”

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Benedict, on the hand, took the opposite route, arriving in Israel and ending in Jordan. Father Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, denied to the Times that Francis’ decision to go to Palestine before Israel had any political reason, only that it made sense for the pope to be in Bethlehem for Sunday Mass and avoid arriving in Israel on Saturday, the Sabbath.

Despite the painstaking attempts to make the visit apolitical, the pope's trip is not occurring in a vacuum. It comes less than a month after the utter collapse of the latest round of peace talks and the reconciliation of rival Palestinian parties Hamas and Fatah.


In addition to the political stalemate, violence against Palestinians continues to occur regularly in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This was demonstrated most recently by a video from May 15 showing the shooting of two youths by the Israeli military. Violent attacks from Israeli settlers against Palestinians known as “price tag attacks” have also surged ahead of the pope’s visit and provoked international outrage.

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Even more obvious is the fact that Bethlehem, in addition to being the birthplace of Jesus Christ, is surrounded by a concrete 26-foot wall and guard towers. Checkpoints and a complex permit system control movement for Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim alike.

In other words, if Pope Francis truly intends to offer his support and comfort to Christians living in the Holy Land through this high-profile pilgrimage, it will be difficult to do so while ignoring these glaring realities. Although it might be understandable that the pope wants to avoid saying anything controversial while he’s there, showing up truly is just half the battle. And that’s not always a good thing.

Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928

Photo via Wikimedia