This weekend Francis will become the fourth pope to visit Israel, and while the country is officially preparing to roll out the red carpet, there’s also alarm among organizers that the pontiff’s reception may not be uniformly positive.
Some Israelis, for instance, have taken the pope’s schedule as an implied snub. He arrives in Bethlehem on Sunday morning before proceeding to Tel Aviv, meaning he’ll visit the Palestinian Territories before he sets foot in Israel.
Bethlehem is traditionally regarded as the birthplace of Jesus and is home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, so it’s a logical place for a pope to go. It is also, however, where the palace of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is situated, and that fact doesn’t sit well with some sectors of Israeli opinion.
The Arutz Sheva news service, for instance, ran an editorial grousing that “the pope will begin his visit in the fictional and terrorist ‘State of Palestine’, and not in the real and democratic state of Israel.”
There’s also fear that outrage in ultra-orthodox Jewish circles over a rumored deal to hand Christians control of the Cenacle, a Christian holy site located in a complex that also includes what Jews traditionally regard as the tomb of King David, may produce protests along the pope’s path.
Also known as the “Upper Room,” the Cenacle is where Christians believe that Jesus led the Last Supper and where his apostles gathered after his death. Located on Jerusalem’s Mount Zion, the site has long been a bone of contention among Christians, Jews, and the Israeli government.
Israeli and Vatican officials have denied that any deal over the Cenacle is in the works, but that didn’t stop a group of some 200 ultra-Orthodox from staging an anti-pope rally earlier this week. They’re also upset that Francis will be saying Mass there, an exception to the usual practice of Christians visiting the site but not staging religious ceremonies because of Jewish sensitivities.
Devotion to King David’s tomb in the same location is as strong among Jews as attachment to the Cenacle is for Christians, especially because it was a focus of national identity in pre-1967 Israel when Jews did not have access to the Western Wall at the ancient temple.
“When the Crusaders come here making the sign of the cross and all kinds of rituals, this place will become idolatrous for us, and we will not have the right to pray there anymore,” ultra-Orthodox protester Yitzhak Batzon said.
Other Israelis fear that the first pope from the developing world, who has a legendary sympathy for the underdog, may say or do something perceived as criticism of Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians. That fear is concentrated not so much on the pope’s prepared texts, which will be scoured by Vatican diplomats for anything that smacks of imbalance, but his celebrated tendency to veer off-script.
The greatest risk along those lines probably comes on Sunday, when Francis will visit a Palestinian refugee camp and chat with children before heading to Tel Aviv and then Jerusalem, with his only comments to the Israeli public that day slated for a brief welcoming address at the Tel Aviv airport.
Each of these concerns may have merit, but there are also at least three compelling reasons why things likely won’t go very far off the rails.
First, Pope Francis enjoys high popularity levels pretty much everywhere, and even many Israelis seem charmed. Famously, a columnist for the newspaper Haartez recently proposed Francis as the country’s new Chief Rabbi.
In that sense, Francis will likely get the benefit of the doubt rather than having to overcome initial hostility.
Second, Francis is not coming to Israel on the back of any eruption in Catholic/Jewish relations, such as the lifting of the excommunication of a traditionalist bishop who had minimized the Holocaust that came just weeks before Pope Benedict XVI visited the country in May 2009.
Instead, Francis comes on the heels of canonizing two other popes seen as friends of Judaism, John XXIII and John Paul II, and in the company of rabbi who’s also a close personal friend from Argentina.
Third and perhaps most fundamentally, both sides have strong incentives for wanting things to go smoothly. The Vatican wants a cycle of good press for the pope, and it wants him to be seen as a serious moral leader. Practically, it also wants Israel to be disposed to finally wrap up long-running negotiations on the tax and legal status of church properties.
For its part, Israel wants stronger diplomatic relations with Catholic countries, and the moral seal of approval that comes from a papal visit. Critically, it also wants a boost in Christian tourism revenue. On background, a government minister said this week that the country could see a ten percent jump next year if the pope’s visit goes well.
Of course, neither the Vatican nor the Israeli government can prevent someone determined to cast a pall on things from trying their best. What they can do, however, is spin whatever happens in a friendly direction, and that likely will be the dynamic when Francis is in town.