Although the Vatican is emphasising that Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the Holy Land in May 2009 is a pilgrimage, Jerusalem Lutheran Bishop Munib Younan said the political aspect of the visit can not be ignored - writes Judith Sudilovsky.
"The Pope is coming as a pilgrim to revive the faith in Jesus Christ of those living in the Holy Land, and to follow in the footsteps of Jesus … Palestinian Christians are expecting much more than you expect," said Bishop Younan speaking on 30 April at a symposium on Interreligious Dialogue in Israel and Palestine.
"This is a crisis threatening local Christians and pressuring a lot of people in Jerusalem to emigrate," said Younan, who heads the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. "We want His Holiness to have a voice [that] rejects occupation, violence, [Israeli] settlements and all other violation of human rights."
Pope Benedict XVI is visiting Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories from 8 to 15 May, in a trip billed by the Vatican as a "Pilgrimage to the Holy Land".
The symposium in Jerusalem was sponsored by the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel and Mercy Corps, a non-governmental relief and development agency.
Christian Palestinians said that among the issues they would like the Pope to raise is family reunification, such as the case where West Bank Palestinians married to East Jerusalem Palestinians, who have Israeli identity cards, legally can not live in the same place.
Bishop Younan said he would also like Pope Benedict to reaffirm the two-state solution, where an independent Palestinian state exists alongside Israel - and to say that Jerusalem should be shared by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and by Israelis and Palestinians.
The bishop said the three religions have good relations in Jerusalem and he wanted to remind the Pope that there are extremists on all sides who use their holy writings to justify violence. "Religion must be a driving force for coexistence and reconciliation," said Younan.
In Rome on 3 May 2009, Pope Benedict referred to his Holy Land visit, requesting prayers for "the afflicted peoples" of that region. He stated, "In a special way I ask that you remember the Palestinian people who have endured great hardship and suffering."
The rector of the Latin Seminary in Beit Jalla, the Rev William Shomali, speaking at the Jerusalem symposium, said religion must play an important role in resolving the conflict since the dispute has a religious dimension.
"We can't deny the religious background of the conflict. It is not only about politics or security but also a political problem supported by a religious view. If dialogue is only secular then the main issues are not touched upon," said Shomali.
For the Pope's visit to have a significant effect, he must come not as a politician but as a pilgrim, despite the pressures from all sides seeking political affirmation for their cause, said the rector.
"This is not a show but real moments of intense prayer," said Shomali. "Prayer for me is one of the most important means to help [with] the solution of this conflict."
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]