Jerusalem: The Pope in Search of Christians

Pope Benedict XVI has completed his eight-day pilgrimage of the Holy Land, preaching peaceful coexistence between the peoples of the region. He urged both Israelis and Palestinians to put aside their grievances and divisions.

"Just and peaceful coexistence among the peoples of the Middle East can only be achieved through a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect, in which the rights and dignity of all are acknowledged and upheld," he said.

Before arriving in the region, the Pope declared that he was coming as a "pilgrim of peace." The Vatican billed the visit as spiritual rather than political. In fact, from day one his trip was mired with political controversies.

On the Israeli side, Pope Benedict XVI failed to clearly confront the dark history of his native Germany despite attempts to ease tensions with Jews after his recent decision to lift the excommunication of a Holocaust denying Catholic bishop. Two high-ranking officials at Yad Vashem (Israel's Holocaust memorial) blamed the Pope for not apologizing or using the words "murder" or "Nazis" during a speech at the site.

Many Palestinians were also not thrilled by the papal visit.

"Nicht Willkommen" -- "not welcome" in Benedict's native tongue German, read a banner across the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, reflecting the resentment among some Muslims at what they regard as Benedict's insults about the prophet Muhammad.

"This Pope does not respect Islam," Nabil Shehadeh, an East Jerusalem resident, told me.

Many Palestinians had wanted the Pope to stand next to Israel's Separation Wall and condemn it. Several thousands of them, mostly living in Diaspora, had petitioned the Vatican urging the Pope to travel into Gaza to witness first hand the destruction left behind by Israel's "Operation Cast Lead". Instead, the Pope opted to visit the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem and speak to the press outside a UN school at a refugee camp within meters of the wall. He acknowledged Palestinian suffering and the destruction of Gaza but attributed it to "the turmoil that has afflicted this land for decades".

Meanwhile, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal warned the Pope about the shrinking numbers in the Palestinian Christian community because of emigration due to the "unjust occupation" of Palestinian land by Israel and "all its humiliation." Israelis attribute this to economics and Muslim extremism.

In 1948, Christians represented 20 percent of the population of historic Palestine. Today, they only represent 2 percent of the population residing between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Discounting all the foreign born priests, nuns, and clergymen living in close proximity to the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City of Jerusalem, the oldest Christian community in the world, Palestinian Christians represent only 1 percent of the inhabitants. According to Palestinian Jerusalemites, this falls into the grand scheme of transforming a big portion of the Old City of Jerusalem into a large theme park.

The Israeli government has been quietly implementing a 165 million dollar eight-year development plan that aims at transforming the area known as the "Holy Basin" -- land both inside and just outside the walled Old City -- into a major "Biblical Kingdom." Much of the plan has been put under the control of ultra-nationalist Israeli settlers groups, who are simultaneously at the forefront of a land acquisition policy geared to taking over as many Palestinian homes in the area as possible. The next time the Pope comes to Jerusalem, its Latin Patriarch may have to point towards where the Christians used to live in the ancient city.

Jamal Dajani produces the Mosaic Intelligence Report on Link TV.