Vatican City, 26 May 2014 (VIS) – Early this afternoon, the Pope visited the Basilica of the Nativity. The first historical references to this “cave of the manger of Bethlehem” date back to Origenes. In 326, the emperor Constantine ordered the construction of a basilica at the over the Grotto of the Nativity, with its floor raised slightly higher than ground level. Damaged by fire and the revolt of the Samaritans, it was restored in 540. In 614, the Persians under Khosrau II invaded the region but left the Basilica intact on account of its frescoes of the Magi in Persian dress. In 638, the Muslims entered Bethlehem, which passed to the Crusaders with the entry of Tancred in 1099. In 1187 Saladin occupied Jerusalem and Bethlehem but again spared the Shrine. In 1192, the bishop of Salisbury, Hubert Valter, re-established the Latin cult in return for payment of a tribute by the faithful. In 1347, the Franciscans obtained permission from the Ottomans to officiate in the Basilica and possession of the Grotto and the Basilica. In the sixteenth century there began a period of disputes between Franciscans and Greek Orthodox regarding the possession of the Basilica, which changed hands according the favour enjoyed at the Sublime Porte by the nations supporting the communities. With the defeat of the Venetians and their expulsion from Crete in 1669, the Orthodox were authorised to take possession of the Grotto and the Basilica. The latter is still their property, whereas the Grotto of the Nativity returned to the Franciscans in 1690. St. Catherine's Basilica, next to the Basilica of the Nativity, is the parish of the Latins in Bethlehem.
The ownership of the individual Holy Places is a vexed question that has given rise to dispute between the communities belonging to the three monotheistic religions of the Holy Land, and remains a delicate theme for international chancellors. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the struggle between the Byzantine and Latin communities, already heated, began to be affected by the highs and lows of international politics and the relations between the powers of the age: the Sultan of Istanbul, who considered the Christian Holy Places as state property; the Italian Maritime Republics which protected the Latins; and the Tsar of Russia, traditionally the protector of Orthodox Churches. Some sanctuaries passed from one community to another, at times only on the basis of the sum of money offered to the Sublime Porte. In 1850, a French request to the Sultan to clarify the matter led to a further dispute with Russia, and and a decree was issued from Istanbul in February 1852 to authorise the existing situation in the various shrines. The “statu quo” virtually froze the claims of the Franciscans in relation to the expropriations of which they had been victims for centuries, and cost them a high price in terms of human lives and property. This Ottoman edict remains in force today and continues to govern the situation in various Shrines such as the Grotto of the Nativity (Bethlehem), the Cenacle and the Holy Sepulchre (Jerusalem).
Pope Francis visited the Grotto of the Nativity, which he reached via an internal passage between the “Casa Nova” Convent and the Greek-Orthodox Basilica, and spent some time there in prayer. He returned by the same passage to the Convent where he was photographed with the Friars. He then proceeded to the “Phoenix Centre” in Bethlehem, a reception centre in the refugee camp of Dheisheh; the centre was built as a result of a donation from Pope John Paul II on his visit in 2000. The Pope was received in the auditorium of the centre by around one hundred children from the refugee camps of Dheisheh, Aida and Beit Jibrin. There was a festive atmosphere with singing, and two children presented the Pope with drawings, letters and craft works. The Pope prayed with the children, and before imparting his blessing a child read him a letter in which he said, 'we are children of Palestine. Our parents have endured occupation for 66 years. We opened our eyes to this occupation and have seen the nakba in the eyes of our grandparents as they left this world. We want to tell the world: enough suffering and humiliation!”.
“Don’t ever allow the past to determine your lives”, the Holy Father responded. “Always look to the future, work hard and make efforts to achieve what you want. But you must understand this: violence cannot be overcome by violence. Violence is overcome by peace! By peace, by working with dignity to help your homeland to move forward”. He then returned to the heliport, where he was awaited by the president of the State of Palestine who bid the Pope farewell, accompanied by the Guard of Honour. After a half-hour journey by helicopter the Pontiff arrived at the International Ben Gurion Airport of Tel Aviv, Israel, where he was received by Shimon Peres, president of the State; Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister; the political, civil and religious authorities, the Ordinaries of the Holy Land, and a choir of young people. “I have come on pilgrimage to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the historic visit of Pope Paul VI”, said Francis. “Since then, much has changed in the relationship between the Holy See and the State of Israel: diplomatic relations, established some twenty years ago, have favoured the development of good relations, as witnessed by the two Agreements already signed and ratified, and a third which is in the process of being finalised. In this spirit I greet all the people of Israel with prayerful good wishes that their aspirations of peace and prosperity will achieve fulfilment”.
The Pope went on to remark that the Holy Land is a spiritual point of reference for as the scene of a multi-millennial history and the principal events in the origin and growth of the three great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. “So I express my hope and prayer that this blessed land may be one which has no place for those who, by exploiting and absolutising the value of their own religious tradition, prove intolerant and violent towards those of others”. He commented that during his pilgrimage he would visit some of the most significant places in Jerusalem, “a city of universal importance”. “Jerusalem, of course, means 'city of peace'”, he continued. “This is what God wills it to be, and such is the desire of all people of good will. Yet sadly Jerusalem remains deeply troubled as a result of long standing conflicts. We all know how urgent is the need for peace, not only for Israel but also for the entire region. May efforts and energies be increasingly directed to the pursuit of a just and lasting solution to the conflicts which have caused so much suffering. In union with all men and women of good will, I implore those in positions of responsibility to leave no stone unturned in the search for equitable solutions to complex problems, so that Israelis and Palestinians may live in peace. The path of dialogue, reconciliation and peace must constantly be taken up anew, courageously and tirelessly. There is simply no other way”.
He went on to renew the appeal made by his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI during his 2009 visit: “the right of the State of Israel to exist and to flourish in peace and security within internationally recognised borders must be universally recognized. At the same time, there must also be a recognition of the right of the Palestinian people to a sovereign homeland and their right to live with dignity and with freedom of movement. The 'Two State Solution' must become reality and not remain merely a dream”.
The Pontiff went on to speak about a “particularly moving” part of his stay, his visit on Monday to the Yad Vashem Memorial to the six million Jews who were victims of the Shoah, “a tragedy which is the enduring symbol of the depths to which human evil can sink when, spurred by false ideologies, it fails to recognise the fundamental dignity of each person, which merits unconditional respect regardless of ethnic origin or religious belief. I beg God that there will never be another such crime, which also counted among its victims many Christians and others. Ever mindful of the past, let us promote an education in which exclusion and confrontation give way to inclusion and encounter, where there will be no place for anti-Semitism in any of its forms or for expressions of hostility, discrimination or intolerance towards any individual or people”.
He added, “It is with a profoundly saddened heart that I have heard of how many people lost their lives in Saturday's atrocious attack in Brussels. I thoroughly condemn this criminal act of anti-Semitic hatred, and commend the victims to God's mercy and pray for the recovery of the injured”.
The Holy Father remarked that the brevity of his visit necessarily limits the encounters he is able to make, but took the opportunity to greet all Israel’s citizens and to express his closeness to them, “particularly those living in Nazareth and in Galilee, where many Christian communities are found”. He concluded by addressing a “warm and fraternal greeting” to the bishops and the Christian faithful, and encouraged them “to persevere in their quiet witness of faith and hope in the service of reconciliation and forgiveness, following the teaching and example of the Lord Jesus, who gave his life to bring about peace between God and man, and between brothers. May you always be a leaven of reconciliation, bringing hope to others, bearing witness to charity! Know that you are constantly in my prayers”.