Blog from the Holy Land: ‘The Pope is here so people remember us’

Pope Francis with Israeli President Shimon Peres, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at Ben Gurion airport (PA)

For the pastoral Pope who seems in a hurry, Francis’s ceremonial duties must prove onerous at times.

When his helicopter landed on the tarmac at Ben Gurion airport this afternoon, it felt like eternity waiting for him to reach the podium. His demeanour was solemn and slow, a sharp contrast to the way in which he glides around St Peter’s square, vivaciously greeting his flock as if they were old friends sharing a joke. It struck me that had I attended a religious rather than diplomatic event, I would have observed a different man.

Having waited for about four hours in the scalding sun, as the time of Francis’s arrival drew near, I felt as if my heart might burst through my chest at the prospect of seeing this holy man in the flesh. As my first tear of the trip escaped, I noticed the beautiful woman next to me who was joyfully shouting “El Papa!” in anticipation. Her husband was sitting beside her; his arm affectionately draped about her shoulders.

“Are you Catholic?” I asked.

She told me that of course she was and that her husband was Orthodox Christian. I immediately tried to talk with them about the significance of Pope Francis’s meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew this evening but chatting ecumenism was not a pressing priority. They were more preoccupied with life and death.

“Pope Francis is coming for us,” she said. “For Christians in the Holy Land. So that Israel knows we exist and the world knows we exist too. As Arab Christians living in Nazareth we are a minority within a minority within a minority. He is coming for us so that people remember us and know that we are here.”

Her husband, who works for the Government and who had surprised his wife only this morning with the news that they would be visiting the Pope today told me urgently. “The world needs to wake up. Christians are being persecuted across the Middle East and Christians in Europe don’t think it will happen to them but it will unless governments act. Something has to be done to stop the spread of extremism.

“Although Christians in the Holy Land are a minority I think our faith is strong, stronger than Christians in Europe and in the US, because we have to fight for it.”

I asked Sylvia if she and her husband had always been Christian. “Yes,” she replied. “And we’re very proud of it. And we are so happy that Pope Francis will be praying for us.