There is great discussion surrounding this visit among Palestinians: the fear that Israel will exploit the pilgrimage to its’ own advantage; frustration that the pope has not included a trip to Gaza in his schedule. The Gaza strip was devastated by the Israeli offensive of December-January last and has for years now languished under embargo. But in Bethlehem and in the refugee camp they are happy about the visit. “In coming to us – they say at the camp – he will get to know the real situation for Palestinians first hand, he will walk along the wall and as a German, he will understand our feelings, because his country too was devastated by a wall”.
The Aida camp in north Bethlehem is home to an estimated 5 thousand people. Of these only 14 families are Christian.
The program for this visit is in its final stages and plans that the pope will be welcomed among the crowd divided into two wings with a children’s choir singing songs of welcome as well as murals and banners and Palestinian and Vatican flags. The visit is to last at least one hour. I twill begin along the Security Barrier that Israel has built around all Palestinian localities to protect itself from terrorist attacks and which is the source of endless problems of movement for the Arab population. It will be followed by an exhibition which through images will seek to highlight the reality of the Palestinian situation and its history; a speech by the president of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas, and then an address by Benedict XVI.
The camp inhabitants want to present the pope with two gifts: a chain with a key attached to it, a link – they say - between the keys of St Peter and the “key to return” of the refugees (many refugees have kept the keys to their homes from which they were expelled or forced to flee, as a sign of their hope to go home). The second gift is a map of Palestine sculpted in Tiberiad rock.
For his visit to Bethlehem, the Mayor (a Christian) asked a local Muslim artist to inscribe and decorate a copy of the Gospel of Saint Luke. The artist 51 year-old Abu Sima, is a refugee who originally fled Iraq, the Jordan and who now resides in Bethlehem.
“Through this humble work – he declares – I wish to send out a message that the Muslim artist is a pacifist. And this despite the attacks that are carried out in various parts of the world by the hands of extremists, who exploit our religion for their own ends”.
Abu Sima worked on the calligraphy for over two months, helped by a local priest to verify its accuracy. The Gospel of Saint Luke was chosen for it’s annotations on the birth of Jesus and its reference to Bethlehem. Batarseh confirms that this gift is a message calling for peaceful coexistence between religions: “It is a message to the world, to remember that the city of Bethlehem, which saw the birth of Christianity, is still today a place of fraternal relationships between Muslims and Christians”.
Because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the anarchy that tends to prevail in the city, the Christian population of Bethlehem is on the decline. In ’98 there were still ‘85%; as of 2005 they count for only 20% of the entire population of an estimated to count 25 thousand inhabitants.