Bethlehem residents look forward to papal visit, despite inconveniences

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A Palestinian youth hangs a flag next to posters depicting Pope Francis outside a souvenir shop in Bethlehem, West Bank, May 19. Pope Francis will visit Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Israel during his May 24-26 Holy Land trip, his first as pope to the region. (CNS photo/Mussa Qawasma, Reuters)
A Palestinian youth hangs a flag next to posters depicting Pope Francis outside a souvenir shop in Bethlehem, West Bank, May 19. Pope Francis will visit Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Israel during his May 24-26 Holy Land trip, his first as pope to the region. (CNS photo/Mussa Qawasma, Reuters)

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNS) — A long line of cars trailed down the road next to the Church of the Nativity as Franciscan Father Ibrahim Faltas helped coordinate the placement of the electricity generator for the May 25 papal Mass.

“We are working night and day,” he said calmly May 23, as he worked to quickly free up the road while drivers waited patiently in their cars. “I think it will be very nice. The people here are happy.”

Sitting in her car with a rosary twisted around her rearview mirror, Jane Zacharia, 37, nervously grasped her steering wheel, admitting that though she was a bit anxious to arrive home to her waiting children, she was also excited about the pope’s arrival in two days.

Leaving the square in front of the Church of Nativity, a trio of tickets for the papal Mass in her hands, Nahida Sleiby, 39, said she felt like she was walking on clouds.

“I am happy because he is coming to us,” she said, adding that she wanted to attend the Mass because of the message of Christian unity Pope Francis is bringing — and, he took the name of her favorite saint.

The arrival of the pope is bigger than any of the minor inconveniences the city is dealing with, she said, looking out at the barriers snaking all around Manger Square.

Though the square was full of pilgrim groups and tourists, and the line down to the manger in the Nativity church was packed, Elias Giacamman, whose souvenir story is one of the many around the square, said tourism was down this year. He said he hoped that Pope Francis’ visit will give an impetus to pilgrims to come as did the visit of St. John Paul II.

“This is a great spiritual experience for Christians and all Palestinians. We are very fortunate,” he added as he took down a welcome banner; city authorities told him only official banners are permitted around the square.

Visitor Eileen Fagan, 50, of California, who was raised a Catholic, was examining the large panels placed around the square juxtaposing biblical Renaissance paintings with modern photographic depictions of the current political situation. Some of the panels replaced Jesus with an image of a Palestinian; she called it “intentionally provocative” and wondered whether they had any place at a religious ceremony.

“It will depend on how the pope handles (the pictures),” she said.

Though this will be a Mass only for local Christians, Sonya Quesada, 54, of Honduras, said she would be able to watch the Mass from the home of a Palestinian friend whose house is on Manger Square.

“It is marvelous,” she said, as she left the Church of the Nativity together with a steady stream of other pilgrims. “It is a great privilege to be able to see the Mass by a Hispanic pope here in Bethlehem. It is an unforgettable experience.”

— By Judith Sudilovsky, Catholic News Service

Catholic News Service, serving since 1920 as a news agency specializing in reporting religion, is the primary source of national and world news that appears in the U.S. Catholic press. It is also a leading source of news for Catholic print and broadcast media throughout the world.

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