A charity official says that Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the Holy Land is an "important sign" in the "nebulous" political situation of the Holy Land. Explaining the "immense" problems facing the Christian community there, she also reported on the continuing preparations for the papal visit.
Marie-Ange Siebrecht, a regional specialist for the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), recently returned from a trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories. She spoke about her impressions of the Holy Land in an ACN interview.
Siebrecht said individual churches are "very much occupied" with their preparations while Christians are "delighted" that Pope Benedict is coming.
"There are many posters, for example, announcing the papal visit," she said, reporting that Nazareth is building an amphitheatre-like structure where the Pope will celebrate Mass.
In preparation for Pope Benedict’s visit, a stage has been erected in the refugee camp of Aida in Bethlehem, but it was being moved because organizers felt the stage was too close to the separation wall which divides the Holy Land.
Siebrecht told ACN that every Christian who wants to see Pope Benedict probably will not have the opportunity to do so.
"At any rate, not the people in Gaza, and not the people in Bethlehem. But at least the Pope is coming directly to Bethlehem. But many people will not get permission to attend the big Masses in Nazareth and Jerusalem."
Responding to reports that Gaza Christians had voiced many doubts about whether the papal visit was opportune, Siebrecht said there is never going to be a "right moment" for such a visit.
"There is always something going wrong in this region," she told ACN. "I can only tell you what I saw and heard. In the main, people are hoping for a great deal from this papal visit, possibly even too much. For the Pope certainly won't be able to solve all their problems."
"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."
Siebrecht said the Pope is coming "as a pilgrim to the Holy Land." Though he cannot tear down "this terrible wall" in his visit, or resolve problems in Vatican-Israeli relations, it is "an important sign that he is coming at all."
She expressed hope that Pope Benedict will address the burdens of Holy Land Christians.
Siebrecht explained that it is "extremely laborious" for priests to obtain visas and there are other requirements for Catholic religious orders, for priests, sisters and religious. There is also discussion about whether the state of Israel might demand taxes from the Church.
Additionally, Israeli movement restrictions are an "immense problem" that separate Christian families and cause people to live in fear that they or their family members might someday be unable to return home from work or from visits outside their community.
"It is really very difficult for the Christians in the region around Bethlehem – it is a gigantic weight on the shoulders of these people."
"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," she continued.
Siebrecht explained to ACN that several Israeli Jews told her that they believed their new government to be racist.
She added that she believed the conditions of Holy Land Christians will be one of the main topics of Pope Benedict’s discussions and speeches.