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VIVA PAPA, VIVA FRANCIS

Contributed by Toine Van Teeffelen on 25.05.2014:

25 May 2014

Bethlehem

Toine van Teeffelen

Mary and I wave at the helicopters flying over the crowded Manger Square where the Pope will hold Mass this morning. When the crowd watches the helicopter touching the ground, they cheer and shout: “Viva Papa, Viva Francis!” Tamer is among the scouts who stand in line at the helicopter landing platform. He holds high the yellow Vatican flag. At our home we hoist the Palestinian and Vatican flags together, and on Manger Square Mary and I wave the Palestinian flag. Mary wears a Palestinian shawl designed for the occasion.

The atmosphere is festive, people feel uplifted by the visit. The shouting reminds me of the arrival of a popstar. There are delegations of Christian communities from allover the land. We are standing close to delegations of Ikrit and Bar’am, two largely Christian villages that were destroyed after 1948 although their inhabitants stayed in Israel and fought a prolonged legal battle for return they never won.

Though people have been waiting for two hours before the start of the Holy Mass, the Mass itself, under superb weather conditions, feels somehow “light”, also because of some very familiar melodies like Gloria in Excelsis Deo. At one moment the crowd prays for “the grace of peace for the Palestinian people,” and suddenly there is deep silence. At the end of the Mass, a friend spontaneously says that she would like to hug the Pope.

There are many messages for him; some in the form of a piece of Art, like the large banners on a row of buildings opposite the stage, with classical European paintings of Biblical suffering combined with present-day photos of Palestinian life. During lunch time five Palestinian Christian families tell about their difficult life conditions. Children from refugee camp Dheisheh south of Bethlehem give the Pope a key, symbol of their right of return, as well as an artistically designed refugee ID, and they also tell about the hungerstriking Palestinian prisoners.

The Nassar family of the Tent of Nations tells me they want to deliver a message to the Pope about the destruction of 1500 fruit trees on their land by the Israeli army last week. Christians of Jerusalem ask their religious leadership to take a stronger moral stand against the ongoing silent ethnic cleansing of Christian and Moslem Palestinians in Jerusalem. In 1967 there were 24.000 Palestinian Christians, now 9.000.

Mary, Jara and I are especially touched by the Pope’s visit to the Wall in Bethlehem. He rightly senses that one should not just drive along this wall but give it special attention. He steps out of the car, prays there and says according to bystanders that he “fully” understands the meaning of the Wall.

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