Sunday, April 12, 2009

NAZARETH, Israel | Jerusalem may be the big draw for pilgrims and tourists to the Holy Land during the Easter season.

But a planned pilgrimage by Pope Benedict XVI to Nazareth next month is expected to elevate Jesus’ boyhood home as another center of global Christianity - a status it has been seeking for decades.

To achieve this goal, city fathers have had to compete with Jerusalem’s Christian Quarter and nearby sites, which were captured by Israel in the 1967 war, and Jesus’ birthplace of Bethlehem in the West Bank.

Nazareth Mayor Ramez Juraissi was in the forefront of a campaign to attract the pope, contending that the alternative destinations considered by the Vatican, such as Haifa and Acre, could not match Nazareth’s Christian component, either in size or diversity.

“We live where it all began,” he said, explaining his successful pitch for a papal visit. “We have a bigger [Christian] population than Jerusalem and Bethlehem combined.”

Nearly half of Nazareth’s 70,000 residents are Christian Arabs, predominantly Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox.

The pope is scheduled to arrive in Nazareth on May 14 for a one-day stay, during which he will celebrate Mass with between 40,000 and 60,000 worshippers at Mount Precipice, the traditional site on Nazareth’s outskirts where an enraged mob wanted to throw Jesus over a cliff, according to the Bible (Luke 4:16-30).

A stadium built there for the previous pontifical visit nine years ago is being expanded for the event.

Nazareth began to gain prominence after the Oslo Accords transferred control of West Bank cities to the Palestinian Authority in the 1990s.

With Bethlehem under Palestinian control, Israel began broadcasting the Christmas Eve midnight Mass on worldwide TV annually from Nazareth.

Enthusiastic Nazarenes expect the papal visit to attract future pilgrims.

“We are building new roads, expanding our electrical grid to Mount Precipice and laying pipes to convey water to the stadium,” said Suheil Diab, an aide to the mayor. “There will be seats for 7,500 people and space for the more than 35,000 on the surrounding grounds.”

A new extension of a modern highway will lead directly to the stadium atop Mount Precipice. A helicopter pad is being leveled next to the stadium and another near the Basilica of the Annunciation.

An estimated $5 million promised to the municipality by Israel’s government is expected to cover the cost of 25 infrastructure projects. “The work under way is nearing completion,” Mr. Diab said.

A note of caution, if not predictable realism, was sounded by Atallah Mansour, an author and journalist who recalled the unbridled optimism that coincided with the arrival of Pope John Paul II.

“Our townsfolk were very excited about [John Paul’s] stay and its aftermath,” he said, “but they reverted to Middle Eastern realism when the second Palestinian ‘intifada’ erupted shortly after his departure and deterred pilgrims as well as tourists from coming here.”

Mr. Mansour expects Israeli authorities to assign an unprecedented number of police and plainclothes security agents to be on the lookout for terrorists.

He said a shadowy group of Muslim extremists known as “Ahbab Allah” (“God’s Beloved”) still resents a government decision nearly a decade ago to halt construction of a mosque near the Basilica of the Annunciation, where Benedict is to pray, confer with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meet local leaders and take time out to rest.

Originally, Israeli officials had approved construction of the a new mosque in Nazareth, which had been earmarked for a site believed to include the grave of Shaab e-Din, a cousin of Sallah e-Din (Saladin), who defeated the Crusaders in the crucial battle of the Horns of Hattin, east of Nazareth and overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

Intervention by John Paul and pressure from American bishops, as well as President Bush, prompted the Israelis in 2002 to change their minds, Mr. Mansour said.

Other stops for the pope during his May 8-15 visit include Amman, Jordan, holy sites in Jerusalem and a possible visit to Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial.

The threat posed by Ahbab Allah was dismissed as minimal to nil by Aatef Sahoum, a prominent Muslim merchant whose father was Nazareth’s mayor from 1947 to 1954. When Israel declared its independence in 1948, city fathers decided that residents should stay and cast their lot with the new state of Israel instead of fleeing.

“Pope Benedict XVI will be welcomed by all Nazarenes,” Mr. Sahoum said. “He is a man of good will, and as such, will be greeted by all of us. There will be no security problems.”

Mr. Sahoum hopes his name will be on the list of notables cleared by Israeli security to meet the pontiff in the basilica.

At this stage, the papal schedule does not call for stops at most of the historic shrines associated with Jesus’ youth in Nazareth.

Among those excluded are Mary’s well, Joseph’s carpentry shop and the Greek Catholic Church built over a former synagogue where Jesus first referred to his messianic role. Greek Catholics follow Eastern ritual, but recognize the authority of the pope.

The pope will enter Mary’s home, which was situated in a cave below the basilica.

A dramatic account of the events believed to have transpired where the Greek Catholic (Melkite) church stands can be found in Luke 3:14-21. It states in part: “And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And he went to the synagogue as his custom was, on the Sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written: ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives.’ ”

The Bible goes on to say that Jesus fled from the synagogue to Mount Precipice, but when the mob attempted to seize him he walked through it and proceeded to Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee’s shore.

All of modern-day Nazareth’s hotels are fully booked for the pope’s stay. An international media center is being set up in one.

Access to the city will be monitored by the police and several of its central streets and avenues will be restricted to the papal entourage, the municipal hosts, accredited journalists and other authorized personnel.

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