Laura Sheahen, Regional Information Officer for Catholic Relief Services/Middle East, is in the Holy Land this week for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit. Catholic Relief Services is a Caritas member based in the United States.
‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,’ the well-worn Robert Frost quote goes, and that something was me on Wednesday. Wandering around Bethlehem’s eerily empty streets in the heat, I was unable to leave the city after a day of papal events because a very large slab of concrete was blocking my way.
My CRS colleague and driver had misplaced his cell phone and we’d gotten separated during Pope Benedict’s Mass at Manger Square in the morning. In the afternoon, after seeing Pope Benedict bless babies at a Bethlehem infant hospital, another colleague and I roamed on foot from one checkpoint to a second one. The checkpoints are places where people can cross the 25-foot-high Separation Wall to get to Jerusalem, which is theoretically twenty minutes away. The streets had been closed off and were deserted; no taxis were anywhere.
“Towering over us … is a stark reminder of the stalemate that relations between Israelis and Palestinians seem to have reached – the wall,” Pope Benedict said at a nearby refugee camp at the same time we were wandering. As my coworker looked for Wall personnel to see if any doors were open, I stood next to the Wall and stared up at its gray bulk. It definitely towered.
My problems, of course, were pretty minor. We walked for 20 minutes or so, and true to Bethlehem’s biblical reputation, a good angel found us. Though the street was closed to outsiders, a man who was perhaps a neighborhood resident happened to drive by, and immediately agreed to drive us to a place where we could meet a cab. We waited at a crossroads, eating some almonds I had bought at Manger Square as thousands of people flowed away from the Mass site. Eventually the cab arrived and we took a detour to an alternate checkpoint.
What was an inconvenience for us today wasn’t just related to typical Israeli policies; special security rules had been put in place for Benedict’s visit. And I have certainly spent some time waiting in line at metal detectors in America: at museums, theaters, airports. Yet the Wall represents something different.
Better minds than mine have mulled the Wall endlessly—the families it separates, the farms and businesses it undermines, the fear it breeds. Better minds have also discussed its pros, or rather its single, near-unanswerable pro: it may keep terrorists out of Israel.
On Wednesday the Wall did not keep out a swarm of loud, cheering Gazans. Ninety-three Gazan Catholics were permitted to leave their territory and come to Bethlehem for Pope Benedict’s Mass. During his sermon, the pope spoke directly to “pilgrims from war-torn Gaza” and spoke of the “suffering you have had to endure.” Referring to blockade that forbids Gazans to leave their small strip of land, the pope went on to say in English, “I pray this embargo may be lifted.”
Wednesday at the refugee camp, Pope Benedict urged everyone trapped by one side or the other of the Wall to do what the Families Forum has done: “To remove the walls we build around our hearts, the barriers that we set up against our neighbors.”