Cross-posted from The National
As his successor, Pope Francis, arrived in Israel yesterday, security was no less strict. Some 9,000 police had been drafted in to protect him, Christian institutions were under round-the-clock protection, and the intelligence services were working overtime. According to a Vatican official, Israel's preparations had turned "the holy sites into a military base."
On this occasion Israel has been less keen to publicise the source of its fears, because the most tangible threat comes not from Islamists but Jewish fanatics linked to Israel's settler movement.
Last month, they issued a death threat to the Roman Catholic bishop of Nazareth and his followers, while recent weeks have seen clergy attacked, churches and monasteries defaced with offensive graffiti and cemeteries desecrated.
The building where the pope is due to meet Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu today was daubed with "Death to Arabs and Christians." On Friday, a church in Beersheva was sprayed with an unprintable insult against Jesus Christ.
Israeli police have arrested or issued restraining orders on several dozen Jewish extremists in the past few days. Fouad Twal, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, has warned that "acts of unrestrained vandalism are poisoning the atmosphere."
Indeed, the mood of intolerance has spread beyond a dangerous fringe. Hundreds of Israeli Jews demonstrated angrily in Jerusalem last week against the pope, while police barred Catholic authorities from putting up banners celebrating his visit, apparently fearful it could trigger wider protests.
The local Palestinian Christian population, both in the occupied territories and inside Israel itself, is feeling more embattled than ever -- and not just from settlers.
In Bethlehem yesterday, the pope made an unscheduled stop to pray by the monstrous concrete wall that has turned Jesus's birthplace into a prison for its inhabitants. At a nearby refugee camp he was reminded that Israel bars many residents from returning to homes now in Israel.
Meanwhile, Mr Netanyahu has announced a plan whose barely concealed goal is to divide the large Palestinian minority inside Israel -- pitting Christian against Muslim -- by seeking to draft the former into the Israeli military.
Despite this pope's popularity, there have been rumblings of dissatisfaction at his priorities on this brief, three-day trip. The official purpose is to mark the 50th anniversary of a meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras that ended a 1,000-year schism between Rome and the Orthodox Church.
The Vatican has emphasized that Francis's trip is "absolutely not political." His itinerary, which does not include time for a visit to the Galilee, where most Palestinian Christians are located, suggests the pope is not likely to offer his flock solace beyond the general hope he expressed in Bethlehem for a "stable peace" in the region.
The holy land's Christians are an increasingly vulnerable minority.
Although Israel blames Muslim fanatics for the decades-long decline, the truth is different. In repeated surveys, only a small minority of Christians blame Muslims for the exodus. In part, the proportion of Christians has fallen over time simply because of their tendency to have smaller families than Muslims. But equally significant are Israel's oppressive twin policies of belligerent occupation in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem and a political system of exclusive Jewish privilege inside Israel.
All Palestinians, Muslim and Christian alike, have been harmed by Israeli rule. But Christians have been better able to exploit connections to western communities, giving them an easier passage out.
None of this fits well with Israel's narrative of a clash between the Judeo-Christian world and Islam, or its desire to present itself as a unique haven as neighbouring Arab states sink into sectarian conflict. Yesterday, Mr Netanyahu claimed Israel was the only Middle East country to offer "absolute freedom to practise all religions."
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