Aid Worker Asks If Pope Can Give Too Much Hope

Describes Environment As Papal Holy Land Visit Begins

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KOENIGSTEIN, Germany, MAY 8, 2009 ( Benedict XVI’s visit to the Holy Land is inspiring a lot of hope, even perhaps too much, says a regional specialist of Aid to the Church in Need.

Marie-Ange Siebrecht, one of the aid agency’s experts on the Middle East, affirmed this Sunday after returning from a trip to Israel and the Palestinian Territories, the organization reported.

She described the environment of preparation for the Pope’s Holy Land visit, which began today. She reported: “Naturally, the Christians are delighted that the Holy Father is coming and there are many posters, for example, announcing the papal visit.

“In Nazareth they are even building a sort of amphitheatre, where the Pope will be celebrating Holy Mass with the people. In Bethlehem too they have already erected something — in the refugee camp of Aida, which the Pope will also be visiting.

Siebrecht added that “the local people are continuing to work confidently and are looking forward to a successful trip.”

She noted that not every Christian will have the opportunity to see the Pontiff, especially the people of Gaza and Bethlehem. Many people, she said, “will not get permission to attend the big Masses in Nazareth and Jerusalem.”

The aid worker observed that during her visit, she saw and heard many people expressing hope “for a great deal from this papal visit, possibly even too much.” She added, “For the Pope certainly won’t be able to solve all their problems.”

She continued: “In reality the Pope can only demonstrate goodwill and endeavor to talk to political and Church leaders. But I know from my own experience how difficult this is in Israel.

“In any case, he is coming above all as a pilgrim to the Holy Land. He wants to say to people, ‘I am with you!’

“But what can he really hope to achieve with regard to the bigger picture? He will hardly be able to tear down this terrible wall through his visit, or even resolve the problems that exist between the Vatican and the state of Israel. But it is already an important sign that he is coming at all.”

Living conditions

The specialist described certain areas that she visited: “I was in Galilee, where the situation of the Christians compared to that in the West Bank, in other words the area around Bethlehem, is much better of course. Nonetheless, these people too count as second-class citizens in Israel, that is, they don’t have the same freedom that other Israelis have.

“They can’t travel in the same way that other Israeli citizens can. Despite this, there are still around 73,000 Eastern-rite Catholics in Galilee — not exactly a small number!

“And the communities are very lively. People here are committed to keeping their communities alive. That was something that struck me especially favorably.”

Siebrecht noted that the region around Bethlehem in the West Bank has the “worst problems.” She explained: “The people here are living as though in a prison, because of the wall. They can’t go in, they can’t get out.

“They feel like prisoners, and that is exactly what they are. The whole problem is especially hard for young Christian couples.

“For example, one young man had an [identification] card for Jerusalem and was able to work there. But his wife was not allowed to leave Bethlehem to go and live with him, while he for his part was not allowed to go to Bethlehem.

“The result of this situation, of course, is that everyone tries to get round it with false papers. These people are all living in the fear that they might one evening be unable to return home at all, or that their family members might be unable to return from work or from visiting people.

“It is really very difficult for the Christians in the region around Bethlehem — it is a gigantic weight on the shoulders of these people.

“We Europeans, when we visit the Holy Land, we don’t understand this and don’t notice it either. We can travel everywhere, and the journey from Bethlehem to Jerusalem is no more than a step for foreigners. But for the Palestinians — and most of the Christians in the Holy Land are Palestinians — it is an immense problem.”

She underlined the hope that the Pope will address the problem of the conditions of life for Christians.

The aid worker appealed for prayers for the Holy Land Christians, especially during the papal visit. She noted that “prayer is the most important thing of all that we can contribute from afar.”

She called for visitors to the Holy Land to not only visit the holy places, but also the “living stones.”

“For the people here are overjoyed when they see that other Christians are close to them in their sorrows and their joys,” she explained. “For despite all the obstacles, these are all very much living communities.”

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