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Palestinians anticipate support for statehood from Pope Francis' visit

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Palestinians hope Pope Francis will give explicit, verbal support for an independent Palestinian state when he visits Bethlehem on Sunday.


Francis is visiting Jordan, Palestine and Israel from May 24-26 as part of a trip through the Middle East, where he will visit a number of holy sites, meet political leaders from the three states, and meet with religious leaders, including Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the Orthodox church.


"It's important to us that he's visiting Bethlehem and Palestine first [before Israel]," Rania Malki-Bandak, the acting director of Bethlehem Peace Center, told NCR. "He insisted on visiting Jordan, Palestine and Israel, in that order. It was a message for all Palestinians: I'm coming to visit you."

"This visit is different from all the other popes because it reflects the reconciliation of Palestine supported by the U.N. and the acknowledgment of Palestine as a state, so it is very important," Bethlehem mayor Vera Baboun said in a press conference Thursday on the final preparations for the pope's visit. Baboun referred to the November 2012 vote in the United Nations that awarded non-member observer state status to Palestine.


During his visit in Bethlehem, Francis will visit the Dheisheh Refugee Camp and pose for a photo next to the separation wall, a bitterly contested cement barrier that divides Palestinian territories from Israel that Israel says is required for security reasons. Youth from Bethlehem will also present him with a cross made from pieces of cement from the separation wall.








In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI stood near the separation wall in the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem and expressed his support for an independent Palestinian state. Palestinians are hoping for a similar proclamation from Francis on Sunday, which they think will be more effective in the international arena given the new U.N. status and the popularity of the current pope.


Ekram Juha, the director of the Bethlehem mayor's office, said the preparations for this visit put more emphasis on political issues than previous papal visits, including with the decorations in Manger Square.


"There are banners of the story of Jesus from the Bible and how it's connected to the wound of Palestine," she told NCR on Thursday as workers hung the last of the banners outside. "Palestinians are asking his holiness to put his hand on this wound and examine our existence, our right to exist. Please, Francis, help make this issue clear," she said.


Francis will also meet with a number of families from Bethlehem, including refugee families and people whose family members are detained in Israeli prisons for security reasons. On Thursday, 50 family members protested in Manger Square, holding photos of their detained family members and demanding their release.


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