The Pope in Nazareth, the largest Palestinian Arab city in Israel

hursday – ALL ISRAELI DAY – at Israel’s largest Arab city, with a high percentage of Christians, where the Virgin Mary is believed to have been informed by the Archangel Gabriel that God had chosen her to bear a child, a very special child — and Mary agreed to accept the burden, even though she was not yet married.

Mary’s son, Jesus, was born in Bethlehem, he grew up in Nazareth, and preached throughout the Galilee and beyond, before being judged and condemned to die in Jerusalem (for blasphemy and insurrection). He was then crucified by Roman troops.

The grotto in the Church or Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth is where, it is believed, Mary was visited by the Archangel Gabriel. In the photo below, the Pope waves as he arrives for a prayer in the grotto of the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth.

Pope Benedict XVI waves as he arrives for a prayer in the grotto of the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth

Pope prays in the grotto in Nazareth

Pope Benedict XVI met Israel’s new Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, in office for the second time after February elections, just days before Netanyahu goes to Washington for an important meeting with the new U.S. President, Barack Obama.

Pope greets Netanyahu

The Pope and Netanyahu spent all of 15 minutes together. The Israeli Government Press Office later reported that “The meeting was characterized by a good atmosphere and continued longer than planned”.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu meets Pope Benedict XVI in Nazareth

According to the Associated Press, Netanyahu said “I asked him, as a moral figure, to make his voice heard loud and continuously against the declarations coming from Iran of their intention to destroy Israel”.  Netanyahu later told Israel TV that “I told him it cannot be that at the beginning of the 21st century, there is a state which says it is going to destroy the Jewish state, and there is no aggressive voice being heard condemning this” … [This AP report noted that “While Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for Israel’s elimination, his exact remarks have been disputed, with some translators saying he called for Israel to be ‘wiped off the map’.  Others say a better translation would be ‘vanish from the pages of time’ — implying Israel would disappear on its own rather than be destroyed.  Since taking office on March 31, Netanyahu has emphasized the Iranian threat in an apparent attempt to put the Palestinian question on the back burner.]  The AP report added that Netanyahu stated that Benedict said ‘he condemns all such things, anti-Semitism, hate’, adding: ‘I think we found in him an attentive ear’.”

AP also reported that “The Israeli leader called his meeting with Benedict ‘very good and important’, noting that the pope heads a church of 1 billion followers, and Israel wants good relations with them.  ‘Secondly, we spoke also about the historic process of reconciliation between Christianity and Judaism. and the pope is very interested’,”Netanyahu said.  The pope’s ventures into diplomacy reflected what Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi called the focus of his Middle East pilgrimage — ‘peace, peace, peace’.  He said the pope could be a ‘bridge’ among the various positions”.

The Vatican also wanted something, according to AP: After the Pope’s meeting with Netanyahu, “Vatican officials also met with Israelis to discuss bilateral issues, including travel privileges for Arab Christian clergy, Lombardi said. The Vatican has asked Israel to allow 500 priests from Arab countries to receive visas to enter Israel at will. Interior Minister Eli Yishai refused the request on security grounds, a spokesman said, but Netanyahu pledged to re-examine the matter”. This AP report can be read in fullhere.

Earlier, shortly after arriving in Nazareth, the Pope said Mass on the Mount of the Precipice. It was the largest event on his tour of the Holy Land, with an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 attending.

Pope arrives in his Popemobile to say Mass on Mount of Precipice in Nazareth

Pilgrims leave after Mass with the Pope on the Mount of the Precipice in Nazareth

Israeli GPO schedule
09:15 Arrival in Naz0areth, Welcoming Ceremony and the Ceremony of Bread and Salt – Reception by Mayor of Nazareth
10:00 Mass at Mount of the Precipice
15:50 Meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Church of the Annunciation
6:30 Meeting with the Faith Heads in Israel, Church of the Annunciation
17:30 Prayer at the Church of the Annunciation

PA Schedule

Another Christmas journey to Bethlehem

BBC Correspondent Aleem Maqboul has just completed a ten-day journey — on foot, with a donkey (actually, a series of donkeys) — from Nazareth (in Israel) to Bethlehem (just south of Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank). His intention was to replicate the journey taken by Joseph and Mary some 2008 years ago, as recounted by Luke in the New Testament of the Bible.

BBC correspondent Aleem Maqboul enters Bethlehem

Maqboul wrote in his trip diary’s final entry today that “throughout history, change in this part of the world has often come unexpectedly and in dramatic fashion. According to the Bible, a journey here made by a man, a heavily-pregnant woman and a donkey changed the world in an instant. Around two millennia on, their story still impacts on the lives of hundreds of millions of people”. The diary can be read in full on the BBC website here .

BBC's Aleem Maqboul walks toward Bethlehem with donkey

He also wrote: “Much of the trip was a reminder that, however obvious this sounds, people in a conflict zone are as three-dimensional as those anywhere else. There were, of course, sad indications of the tensions here. There was the silence of hundreds of people as they buried a 22-year-old militant in the village of Yamoon, after an Israeli army raid”. [n.b. – Maqboul wrote on this killing on 16 December, a day after he started his trip, saying: “On the news of one such raid, on a village close to the border crossing, I decided to take a detour. The raid was over, and the army had gone. They had killed a 22-year-old man, Jihad Nawahda. We were told he was a local leader of the Islamic Jihad militant group and had been wanted by the Israeli army for some time. Funeral prayers had already been carried out, and by the time I arrived, hundreds of men escorted the body to the cemetery for immediate burial, in accordance with Muslim tradition. A few black and yellow Islamic Jihad flags were carried in silence by the mourners”. This killing provoked a large increase in the number of “projectiles” being fired from Gaza onto Israeli territory in the vicinity of the northern Gaza strip. This entry in Maqboul’s trip diary can be found on this page.]

His final trip diary entry continued: “A sense of how far apart the worlds of Jewish settlers and Palestinian villagers were, how little interaction there was between the two and how entrenched their views are. And then there was the military checkpoint that greets visitors entering Bethlehem. But people along the way did speak of hope – though not necessarily expectation – that things would get better one day”.

BBC's Aleem Maqboul has company as he walks near Nablus

However, on 23 December, Maqboul passed through Ramallah and then Jerusalem on his way, and noted: “Ramallah is the city in which I have lived for more than a year-and-a-half. Amid all the chaos and conflict in other parts of the Palestinian Territories, Ramallah tries hard to cocoon itself. Three Palestinian refugee camps are incorporated into the city; Jewish settlements expand on the hills around it; access to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, or parts of the northern West Bank has become difficult – yet the building work on new apartment blocks all over Ramallah points to the beginnings of economic progress. Socially too, the city has tried to remain resilient. An evening out in any number of fancy restaurants or bars hypnotises the wealthiest of Ramallah’s residents into thinking that all is well in the world. Many Palestinians here, outwardly at least, seem determined not to concern themselves even with the dire humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, for example. Underneath, most acknowledge that Ramallah’s future is still incredibly fragile. Approaching the Kalandia checkpoint, through which I needed to pass continue my journey, I noticed a large, new piece of graffiti on the familiar grey … I negotiated the queues, turnstiles and x-ray machines with few hold-ups, and headed through the crossing towards the centre of Jerusalem. I was turned back at a subsequent, smaller, checkpoint [n.b., we know which one that was — the infamous “ar-Ram” checkpoint at Dahiet al-Bariid, and for more details and descriptions see our other posts on this blog], but it was a minor inconvenience as I knew a route around it…”

I don’t know what happened to the comments that I read on the site at an earlier stage of Maqboul’s journey …