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Pope Mideast Visit Preparations See Both Strife And Excitement

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Preparations for the Pope's May 8 - 15 Mideast visit have adopted varying tones, from laudatory educational campaigns to politically sardonic venue choices, all depending on who is rolling out the red carpet. As the AP reports, for example, Palestinian refugees in the Aida camp near Bethlehem are welcoming the Pope, but intend to make a statement in the process by building the stage from which he will speak in the shadow of the massive concrete barrier separating Israel from the West Bank. However, the Israeli government has caught wind of the move, which is meant to depict Israel as a Palestinian occupier, and is canceling the construction for violating permits.

Nearby, Bethlehem's governor Salah at-Tamari decried the Israeli government Friday for acting in a manner that is meant to hide the "repressive practices against Palestinians," and pointed out that the inclusion of the Aida camp on the Pope's itinerary was meant to specifically address this issue, AdnKronos reports. According to AdnKronos:

The Aida camp was established in 1950 between the Palestinian towns of Bethlehem and Beit Jala. According to the United Nations Relief Works Agency, the camp is severely overcrowded and has a population of 4,456 inhabitants. At least 478 families in the camp receive emergency food rations.

Other regional voices have been even less subtle in their reaction to the Pope's trip, such as Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood, who is calling for a Papal apology for remarks he made in the past about the Prophet Muhammad, the AP reports. According to AP:

The controversy centers on a speech the pope made in September 2006 about Islam and violence in which he quoted a Medieval text that characterized some of the teachings of Muhammad as "evil and inhuman," particularly "his command to spread by the sword the faith."

In contrast, Israel's Catholic schools have been pulling out the stops since the Pope's visit was announced in early March. Since that time, Catholic schools have set aside 500 hours of class time to focus specifically on the Pope, Vatican and Catholic history, Catholic News Agency (CNA) reports. Reflecting Israeli Catholics' anticipation of the momentous visit, Fr. Elias Daw of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church told the Italian bishops' news agency SIR that:

"This journey comes in a delicate moment, after the tragedy of Gaza, the recent attacks against the symbols of our religion on an Israeli TV channel and the declarations made by Holocaust-denying Bishop Williamson," he told SIR. "Christians in the Holy Land need the Pope and his voice of truth and justice now more than ever."

The Pope's trip will have a specific directive to promote Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement, which he expressed in his annual Easter address from the Vatican. According to Al Jazeera:

"Reconciliation - difficult, but indispensable - is a precondition for a future of overall security and peaceful coexistence," the pope said in his twice-yearly "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and the world) address.

"It can only be achieved through renewed, persevering and sincere efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

We'll have updates to come as the Pope's visit approaches and, presumably, more clashes of expectation and preparation occur.

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