Pope Francis leaves next Saturday for a brief but intense three-day outing to Jordan, the Palestinian Territories, and Israel, a region Christians traditionally call the “Holy Land.” He’ll become the fourth pope to make the trip, which is always a religious and political high-wire act.
Four challenges await him, beginning with the situation facing the region’s small Christian minority.
Across the Middle East, Christians have declined from 20 percent of the population in the early 20th century to roughly 4 percent, and that decline is palpable in the Holy Land. The city of Bethlehem in the Palestinian Territories, where Francis will say an open-air Mass on Sunday, was almost entirely Christian a century ago, but today it’s more than two-thirds Muslim.
The Catholic patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, warns that the Holy Land, if the trend continues, could become a “spiritual Disneyland” — full of glittering attractions, but empty of flesh-and-blood believers.
Though Israel’s Christian population is actually inching up, things are hardly rosy. They’re reeling from a series of attacks by Jewish extremists, including graffiti left on Christian sites reading “Death to Arabs and Christians” and “Jesus is Garbage.”
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