Workers at a stadium in Amman, Jordan, prepare for the visit of Pope Francis on 24 May.
Photograph: Muhammad Hamed/Reuters
- Unlike his predecessors, Pope Francis won't hide his sympathies for the Palestinians on his Middle East visit this weekend
By Paul Vallely
22 May 2014
Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, had better brace himself: Pope Francis arrives in the Middle East on Saturday. The pontiff's words, of course, will be of the need to improve relations between Christians, Jews and Muslims. But the visit's semiotics will send out an altogether tougher message.
When the previous two popes went on pilgrimage to the region, they went first to Jordan, then to Israel, and then to the Occupied Territories. Francis has altered the order. He arrives in Jordan tomorrow but is insisting on then crossing into the occupied territories before visiting Israel. Francis, a man known for the potency of his symbolism and gestures, is making a point.
You see that point more clearly if you look at the official itinerary issued by the Vatican. The first thing the pope will do when he enters the Israeli-occupied West Bank is to call on "the president of the state of Palestine". The wording is significant: Francis is announcing that he is visiting an entity that Israel, like the United States, insists does not exist.
Pope Francis arrives at a time when peace talks have broken down and the Palestinian leadership has been taking unilateral steps in the international arena. Most significantly, a pact was signed a month ago between Fatah and Hamas to repair the rift between the rival factions. There is talk of a Palestinian unity government being formed within weeks. Many in the Vatican see the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation as having been carefully timed to come to fruition just as the pope visits.