Holy Father in Holy Land

Pope Francis has completed a three-day tour of Israel, Jordan and the West Bank

This was the first visit of the pontiff to the Holy Land since he was voted into the bishopric of Rome last year. He began in Jordan, where he visited a Syrian refugee camp and the River Jordan itself, where many people believe Jesus was baptised.

He then crossed directly into the Palestinian Territory of the West Bank, where he provoked uneasy reaction from Israeli leaders by praying at one of high concrete separation walls built across the area. Spiralling around Jewish settlements, the controversial barriers either protect historically Jewish lands or divide Palestinians from each other, depending on the views from the two sides of the ongoing regional rift.

The Holy Father then went on to hold an open-air mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square. I was there in the city a couple of days before and the video below shows preparations being made:

In the birthplace of Jesus Christ, along with the evocative notes of the Muslim call-to-prayer echoing out across Manger Square, you can see posters and banners celebrating the Catholic visit to the ‘State of Palestine’. In an interesting twist, the Palestinian Territories are one of only two entities to be afforded the diplomatic status at the United Nations of ‘non-member observer state’; the other is the Vatican City, or Holy See.

The Pope then moved on to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. As the video below highlights, he arrived in the region on Saturday 24 May and would go on to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where he prayed jointly with the Orthodox Christian patriarch Bartholomew I.

The prayer that the pontiff offered at a section of the separation wall coated in anti-Israeli graffiti in Palestine was an unscheduled stop and lauded by Palestinians. However, for Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, it was an awkward moment and one he was keen to equal by highlighting the price that many Israelis have also paid in the conflict. On Monday 26 May, the Pope eased tensions by agreeing to stop to pray at a memorial to Israeli victims of terrorism on Mount Herzl, where Yad Vashem, the country’s national Holocaust museum, is located.

In such an old region, a land of sacred Jewish walls, revered Muslim shrines and Christian holy rivers, where cultures and religions have risen and fallen, it was always going to be a tricky trip to make, and one that was full of symbolic gestures. The view across the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, was a fascinating shot to film, with the blue-and-white Star of David flags flying just below the gleaming golden Muslim Dome of the Rock, and the Islamic call-to-prayer gliding out from the Aqsa Mosque over hundreds of Jews praying at the wall below.

Palestinian protest in Haifa

During a visit to the Middle East, I visited Haifa, a town on Israel’s northern coast.

As the sun drooped towards the Mediterranean, the Friday evening restaurants started to bustle with pre-Sabbath trade. In the shadow of the Shrine of the Báb temple of the Bahá’í faith, pro-Palestine chants broke out among a group of people bristling with flags and placards. After several minutes of stationary protest, the group of demonstrators marched off articulating their support for imprisoned Palestinians.