Pope Francis' visit to the Holy Land: Pontiff’s planned visit to grave of Zionism’s founder branded ‘nauseating’ by Palestinians

However Israelis are delighted with the planned wreath-laying in Jerusalem

jerusalem

Pope Francis will navigate a diplomatic minefield when he starts a two-day visit to the Holy Land on Sunday. He has already been criticised by Palestinians and Israelis for some of his travel choices.

Today, Palestinian activists were scathing about the Pope’s plans to make the first visit by a pontiff to the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, the political movement that established Israel and displaced the Palestinians.

However Israelis are delighted with the planned wreath-laying in Jerusalem, which they see as capping a Vatican transition from enmity to Jewish nationalism a century ago to an embrace of it now. But Omar Barghouti, a Ramallah-based member of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, termed the planned visit to the grave “nauseating”.

“Laying a wreath on the grave of the founder of Zionism, a patently racist ideology that has served to enable and justify the ethnic cleansing of most of the indigenous people of Palestine, is a nauseating, offensive act of complicity that Palestinian civil society cannot but condemn,” Mr Barghouti wrote in an emailed statement. He added that the gesture would “serve to whitewash Israel’s occupation and apartheid”.

Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s central council, also questioned the Pope’s choice. He said that if the Pope is to visit Herzl’s tomb, he should make a visit to the Yasser Arafat mausoleum in Ramallah for “balance”.

But most of the Palestinian political elite offer a more welcoming tone, saying they expect the Pope to strengthen ties with the Palestinians and to speak of justice and human rights.

“The visit to Herzl’s tomb is not a problem – it’s a courtesy visit,” explained Abdullah Abdullah, deputy commissioner on international relations for Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement.

The Pope’s route is also under scrutiny on both sides.

Some Palestinians are upset that the Pope will not be travelling directly from Bethlehem to occupied East Jerusalem, the area Palestinians envision as their future capital. Instead, he is going there after flying by helicopter to Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, near Tel Aviv, something that is seen as transmitting the message that East Jerusalem, which Israel illegally annexed in 1967, is part of Israel.

“The highest moral authority in the world is coming to Jerusalem through an Israeli airport, giving the impression he is recognising the sovereignty of Israel in East Jerusalem,” said Hind Khoury, former Palestinian Authority minister for Jerusalem Affairs. “We compromised by accepting such a small state and now we can’t get the recognition of the Pope that East Jerusalem is the capital of our state.”

But Israelis are not totally satisfied with the Pope’s itinerary, either. They note that he is flying by helicopter from Jordan directly to Palestinian Authority territory in Bethlehem on Sunday, rather than going there via Israel. This is seen as an unwelcome recognition of Palestinian statehood.

“For the Vatican, they are coming to Palestine,” said Oded Ben-Hur, the senior diplomatic adviser to Israel’s parliament and a former envoy to the Holy See. “We’re not very happy about it, but it’s a fact. We wanted to play it down”.

Meanwhile, local Palestinian Christians are hoping a scheduled mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square will give a boost to their presence; they are a dwindling minority compared to Jews and Muslims. “We’re waiting for a message to local Christians giving us courage and hope,” said Jamal Daibes, rector of the Latin Seminary in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem.

The Pope will also be visiting Dehaishe refugee camp near Bethlehem.

Church leaders say, however, that the entire trip was originally designed as an opportunity for the Pope to meet Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, in Jerusalem.

Their meeting, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre late on Sunday, will mark the 50th anniversary of a historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, spiritual leader of the world’s Greek Orthodox Christians in 1964, which ended 900 years of estrangement between the churches.

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