Samaritan High Priest Abdel Moin Sadaqa was relaxing on his porch watching Al-Jazeera on a wide-screen TV when we dropped by his home to talk about his ancient religion. “I like to keep up with the news,” the 83-year-old head of one of the world’s oldest and smallest religions explained as he turned down the volume. Told we wanted to make him part of the news, more precisely part of a feature on Samaritanism, he sat up, carefully put on his red priestly turban and proceeded to chat away in the fluent English he learned as a boy under the British mandate for Palestine. Our interview with him and other Samaritans were the basis for my feature “Samaritans use modern means to keep ancient faith.”
The Palestinian issue has figured prominently over the past week in stories with a religion angle. Pope Benedict’s visit to Israel, which ended on Friday, was the most prominent. While visiting Bethlehem, he called Israel’s barrier in the West Bank “one of the saddest sights” on his whole tour. Early this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met U.S. President Barack Obama for the first time. Netanyahu said the Palestinians must recognise Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition for peace talks while Obama said Jewish settlements in the West Bank “have to be stopped.” On Wednesday, United Nations human rights investigators said they hoped to visit Gaza in early June and hold public hearings on whether war crimes were committed there in Israel’s blockade of the area governed by the Islamist movement Hamas.
When Pope Benedict visited Bethlehem, in the West Bank, last week, he was less than 100 km (60 miles) away from Gaza. But for the 4,000 Christians in this crowded Palestinian territory along the Mediterranean Sea , he might as well have been on the moon. Like nearly all Gazans, they are barred from leaving the Gaza Strip by Israeli restrictions. An Israeli embargo on supplying many essential goods to them has left the impoverished area unable to repair buildings destroyed or damaged by an Israeli offensive in January. Added to all that, the tiny Christian minority has been living since June 2007 under the Islamist rule of Hamas. Faced with conditions like that, attending a papal mass is a luxury few would even dream of.
Wednesday was Palestinian day in Pope Benedict’s schedule. He spent the whole day in Bethlehem and met Catholics, refugees and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He spoke out clearly in favour of a Palestinian homeland, deplored the Israeli wall that snakes around the town and spoke with sympathy of the difficulties the Palestinians face. Taken together, they were a strong expression of Vatican support for the Palestinians.
from AxisMundi Jerusalem:
Pope Benedict has crossed through the imposing concrete wall that separates the West Bank town of Bethlehem from Israel to visit the town of Jesus' birth. The wall is part of the nearly 800 km security barrier that Israel is building in and around the West Bank in a series of walls, fences, berms and ditches. He was accompanied to the checkpoint on the Israeli side by Israeli security before driving through the barrier to meet up with his Palestinian security escort.
Palestinian authorities in Bethlehem are playing poker with papal protocol, hoping that Pope Benedict will depart from the script during his visit to the town of Jesus’s birth on Wednesday to give them a better photo op. They are so determined to have the pope stand right in front of the towering wall that Israel has constructed through parts of the city that they have built a small amphitheatre next to it where they want to greet him. Israel says the the open-air theatre, about the size of a basketball court, is illegal and ordered a halt to its construction. The Vatican has said the pope will only visit a United Nations-run school across the street. But the Palestinians have continued work feverishly to have the stage and stands ready just in case.
(Photo: Bethany baptismal pool with ruins of ancient basilicas in rear, a staircase to the water and, at right, two of the four massive pillars that used to hold a church above the baptism site, 6 May 2009/Tom Heneghan)
In John’s Gospel, verse 1:28, it says that John the Baptist used to baptise people in “Bethany beyond the Jordan” and Jesus went there for his own baptism. Seen from the perspective of Jerusalem, “beyond the Jordan” means on the river’s east bank, in present-day Jordan. Those words were added to distinguish that Bethany from the village near Jerusalem where Jesus was said to have raised Lazarus from the dead. Despite that, pilgrims have long visited a spot on the river’s west bank, now in an Israeli military zone in the Palestinian territories, and considered it the true site where Jesus was baptised.