Papal Journey to Palestine

On a historical journey, Pope John Paul II, the leader of the Catholic Church, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, visiting religious sites sacred to Christianity in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including Jerusalem, as well as in Israel. He also visited sites holy to Islam and Judaism during the trip. The papal pilgrimage was a long-awaited journey, coinciding with the Jubilee year of the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, Palestine. Although the Palestinian people had hoped to receive the Pope in an independent Palestine, the Pontiff’s religious, historical, and spiritual journey to the Holy Land was happily welcomed by the Palestinian people at all venues during his visit.

Coming from Jordan, where he began this leg of his pilgrimage, which was preceded by a visit to Egypt a week earlier, the Pope arrived in Israel on 21 March 2000. On 22 March, Pope John Paul II arrived at Bethlehem, where he was warmly welcomed by President Yasser Arafat, joined by several Palestinian clerics, diplomats and other officials, at a formal reception early in the day. Bethlehem, the Pontiff said, was at the heart of the pilgrimage he had dreamed of making in this millennial year. Upon arriving in Bethlehem, the Pope kissed a bowl of Palestinian soil offered by a Palestinian girl and boy. This image was rife with symbolism as a papal blessing and affirmation of the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people in their long and historic struggle for statehood.

During the welcoming ceremony at Manger Square, the Pope delivered a poignant speech, further reaffirming the Vatican’s long-standing support for the just cause of the Palestinian people and their natural inalienable rights. Following this ceremony, the Pope held a two-hour Mass before thousands of faithful in Manger Square in front of the Basilica of the Nativity, one of the holiest sites in Christianity, revered as the birthplace of Jesus Christ. After the Mass, the Pope made a visit to the Grotto of the Nativity, where he prayed in private.

Later that day, the Pope met with President Arafat in a very positive meeting. This was followed by a very politically and historically symbolic visit by the Pope to the Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem, where he was joyously welcomed. 10,000 Palestinian refugees live in crowded and dilapidated conditions in this camp, which was established over 50 years ago following the 1948 war. The Pope toured the camp and delivered a moving address, drawing attention to the refugees’ suffering and calling for a just resolution of this humanitarian plight.

The itinerary for the rest of the papal pilgrimage in the Holy Land included visits to several other Christian holy sites and meetings with numerous religious officials from the three monotheistic religions. On his way to Bethlehem, the Pope had made a prayerful stop at the Jordan River in Jericho, where it is believed that Jesus was baptized. His journey also included a visit to Nazareth, where the Pope prayed at the Grotto of the Annunciation and held Mass at the Basilica, later paying a private visit to the Basilica of the Garden of Gethsemane.

On the last day of his pilgrimage, the Pope visited the holy sites in Occupied East Jerusalem, including sites revered by Islam and Judaism. In the Holy City, the Pope visited Al-Haram Al-Sharif with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. He later prayed at the Western Wall, placing a message asking for peace for the peoples of the Holy Land. The Pope’s visit to Jerusalem culminated with an emotional Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, revered as the site where it is believed that Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected.

The pilgrimage of Pope John Paul II to the Holy Land was religiously, historically, and politically significant to the Palestinian people. His journey to this land and his poignant words, particularly in his speech and Mass in Bethlehem, Palestine and at the Dheisheh refugee camp, brought worldwide attention to the plight of the Palestinian people, the justness of their cause, and their legitimate human and national rights that must be fulfilled.

It worthy to recall that prior to the papal pilgrimage, the Vatican and the PLO signed the “Basic Agreement between the Holy See and the Palestine Liberation Organization” at Vatican City on 15 February 2000. That agreement focused on Church rights in the Holy Land and on Jerusalem as well, declaring, inter alia, that “an equitable solution for the issue of Jerusalem, based on international resolutions, is fundamental for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.”

Excerpts from the Pope’s speech at Bethlehem:

…Peace for the Palestinian people! Peace for all the peoples of the region! No one can ignore how much the Palestinian people have had to suffer in recent decades. Your torment is before the eyes of the world. And it has gone on too long.

The Holy See has always recognized that the Palestinian people have the natural right to a homeland, and the right to be able to live in peace and tranquility with the other people of this area… I have repeatedly proclaimed that there would be no end to the sad conflict in the Holy Land without stable guarantees for the rights of all the peoples involved, on the basis of international law and the relevant United Nations resolutions and declarations.

…Only with a just and lasting peace – not imposed but secured through negotiation – will legitimate Palestinian aspirations be fulfilled…

…In a particular way, my prayers are with those Palestinians – Muslim and Christian – who are still without a home of their own, their proper place in society and the possibility of a normal working life. My hope is that my visit today to the Dheisheh Refugee Camp will serve to remind the international community that decisive action is needed to improve the situation of the Palestinian people.

I was particularly pleased at the unanimous acceptance by the United Nations of the resolution on Bethlehem 2000, which commits the international community to help in developing this area and in improving conditions of peace and reconciliation in one of the most cherished and significant places on earth…

Excerpts from the Pope’s speech at Dheisheh Refugee Camp:

…Throughout my pontificate I have felt close to the Palestinian people in their sufferings. I greet each one of you, and I hope and pray that my visit will bring some comfort in your difficult situation. Please God it will help to draw attention to your continuing plight. You have been deprived of many things which represent basic needs of the human person: proper housing, health care, education and work. Above all you bear the sad memory of what you were forced to leave behind, not just material possessions, but your freedom, the closeness of relatives, and the familial surroundings and cultural traditions…

…It is true that much is being done here in Dheisheh and in other camps to respond to your needs, especially through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. I am particularly pleased at the effectiveness of the presence of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine and many other Catholic organizations. But there is still much to be done.

The degrading conditions in which refugees often have to live… the fact that displaced persons are obliged to remain for years in settlement camps: these are the measure of the urgent need for a just solution to the underlying causes of the problem…

…My appeal is for greater international solidarity and the political will to meet this challenge…I appeal to political leaders to implement agreements already arrived at, and to go forward towards the peace for which all reasonable men and women yearn, to the justice to which they have an inalienable right.