Plans for the pope's visit hit a wall in Bethlehem

Palestinians are building a stage to receive the pope beside Israel's separation barrier, but the Vatican says he will now speak at a nearby school.

By , Staff writer

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    Palestinian workers, who are building an outdoor theater in preparation for Pope Benedict's visit, are seen at a construction site next to Israel's separation barrier in the Aida refugee camp near the West Bank town of Bethlehem. On Wednesday the Vatican has informed Palestinian officials that the papal visit will be held at a nearby United Nations school instead of in Aida.
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For weeks, laborers have been laying new tiles and leaders have been finalizing their plans for welcoming one of the most important visitors the Aida Refugee Camp has ever seen: Pope Benedict XVI, who will embark on a historic visit to the Holy Land next week.

But despite giving the stone amphitheater here a face-lift – with funds from the Palestinian Authority (PA) – their plans to host the pope have hit a glitch, or to be exact, a wall. The Vatican has informed Palestinian officials that the papal visit will be held at a nearby United Nations school instead of on the stage they were preparing for him, raising a wave of local ire.

What's in a stage?

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There is no other venue in the world with a backdrop quite like this one. It sits in the looming shadow of the West Bank separation barrier built by Israel, complete with a forbidding watchtower. The massive concrete slabs here are painted with anti-Israeli graffiti, calls for Palestinian freedom, and a white patch on which the camp's community center sometimes screens films. From the point of view of Palestinians who live here, there is no vista which conveys their reality better than this one.

"We want to show the pope the wall, and the big prison that the Israelis have put us in," says Samir Oudeh, head of the Popular Committee of Aida Refugee Camp, as he stands atop the long, narrow, open-air theater that hugs the wall. "This is our catastrophe, and we know that they don't want the world to see it."

Vatican officials made several visits here in recent weeks, but about a week ago, says Mr. Oudeh, he was informed that the pope would speak in a nearby school – and not on the stage. "We learned later that the Israelis put pressure on the Vatican to change the venue," he says.

An Israeli official in Jerusalem rejects the claim that Israel interfered with the decision, but expressed approval of the Holy See's move to avoid "politicizing" the papal visit.

However, about a week ago, Israeli soldiers came and took pictures of the site and warned those working on it that the structure was illegal and could be torn down soon.

A youth who lives in the camp and works as a volunteer on the site describes their arrival. "The Israelis came and said, 'You're not allowed to continue this work.' They even took pictures of us and threatened to put us in jail if we continued,' " says Atieh Abu Akr. Oudeh shows reporters photographs of Israeli soldiers filming the workers, and a copy of the stop-work order they left behind. The land here is designated as Area C, the part of the West Bank under full Israeli military control.

The local welcome committee for the pope, however, has decided to march on with their plans, setting the stage for a less-than-comfortable atmosphere on the eve of the visit. On Wednesday, workers were still busy preparing the site as if nothing had changed.

"As the official committee to welcome the pope, we have decided that we will insist on finishing this area and welcoming the pope here," says Oudeh. To his left, the wall blocks the view of the rolling landscape and of Rachel's Tomb of biblical fame. Nearby, ramshackle buildings overflow with people and laundry lines. A UN study released Wednesday says that only 13 percent of Bethlehem land is available for Palestinian use, much of it fragmented. Moreover, 66 percent of the land is designated as Area C, where Israel retains control over building and planning, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs found.

The residents, who number about 4,000, are disappointed. "Last night, we had a meeting in the camp, and when we told the residents that the pope won't speak here, they were very angry," Oudeh says.

The frustration, local Palestinians say, is not just with Israel or the Vatican, but what they describe as the PA's acquiescence.

"If the PA agrees to this, there will be real disgust," says Abdelfattah Abusrour, who runs the Alrowwad Cultural Theatre and Training Center here. "But at the end of the day, the pope will pass by here and the wall will be visible in every way. Even if he doesn't sit in front of it, they can't hide it."

The spokesman for the Vatican in Israel says there has been no change in venue, and that officials decided several weeks ago that the school was the most appropriate place for the pope's address.

"The holy father will pass by the wall on his way in and out of Bethlehem, and regardless of where he will sit, the misery of the Palestinians will be known," says Wadie Abu Nassar. "It is a very sensitive matter there, but this issue was agreed on since the beginning. There are several factors no one can hide. First, that there is a wall. Second, the Palestinian refugees live in terrible conditions, and third, there's an occupation."

A spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry said that the papal visit should focus on bringing the religions together, not highlighting political issues.

"We believe that the choices the Vatican is making are the right ones," says Andy David, a Foreign Ministry spokesman. "This visit is intended to bring the three religions together to create an atmosphere of cooperation and send a message of peace. Trying to use the visit to emphasize disputes, we think, is not the right way to treat the pope's visit."

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