Although Pope Francis has insisted that his upcoming visit to the Holy Land is "strictly religious," many Palestinians are hoping the visit will have political ramifications, drawing attention to their plight and speeding up efforts to establish an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza.
The pope starts his first visit to the region on Saturday. His initial stop in Jordan is to be followed by a visit to Bethlehem on Sunday and Jerusalem on Monday.
Palestinians are drawing political significance from the fact that Francis will fly from Jordan directly to Bethlehem, without a stop in Israel. Bethlehem, revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, is under Israeli occupation.
"In addition to being a religious visit, the pope's trip to the Holy Land has a very clear political message," said Hanna Amira, a Palestinian Christian from Jerusalem and member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
"First of all, this is the first visit for the pope after Palestine was recognized by the United Nations as a non-member state," he said. "The pope is going to fly directly from Jordan to Bethlehem, which means he is traveling from one state to another. This is a significant political move."
Amira, who is also head of the Palestinian Presidential Committee for the Pope's Visit, spoke of the benefits he believes the visit will bring.
"We believe this visit will have a positive impact on the situation of the Palestinian people, particularly the Christians, since it will shed light on their oppression under Israeli occupation," he said.
The pope's itinerary refers to the "State of Palestine" when speaking of his trip to Bethlehem, where he will hold Mass on Sunday at Manger Square, the reputed site of Jesus' birth. Up to 10,000 people are expected.
Francis' short visit to Bethlehem will also include lunch with Palestinian families who lost a member in the long conflict with Israel or have a son in prison, as well as families of displaced people.
Shadia Sbait will represent displaced villagers from Iqrith and Kufur Biri'im, two northern Christian villages whose inhabitants were expelled by Jewish forces in 1948, shortly after Israel's creation.
"For the past 66 years, displaced Palestinian Christians from Iqrith and Kufur Biri'im have been engaged in a popular and legal struggle for the right to return to their villages," Sbait said.
"As our pastor, we implore His Holiness Pope Francis to open our file in his meeting in Jerusalem with Prime Minister (Benjamin) Netanyahu and to ask him to end the 66 years of suffering of the communities of Iqrith and Kufur Biri'im," she added.
The pope will also visit the Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem, where some 13,000 Palestinian refugees have been living since their families were forced from their homes in 1948.
Speaking at a news conference on Thursday, Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun expressed hope that "Pope Francis' visit to the Holy Land will bring with it the long-sought-for peace that will lead to stability in the region as a whole."
She said that Bethlehem "has been suffering for a long time and it hopes that the future will bring peace based on right and justice."
Baboun plans to present the pope a gift representing her city placed inside a box, including representations of the 20-foot-tall concrete wall and checkpoints Israel has built around the southern West Bank city, cutting it off from neighboring Jerusalem.
Abukhater is a special correspondent.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun