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Concerns for the safety of Pope Francis during his visit to the Holy Land next week have been heightened by his insistence on using an ordinary car on the trip, rather than the bullet-proof vehicles usually used by heads of state in the Middle East.
Fears about security have been rising in Israel amid concerns that Francis’ pilgrimage could be disrupted by extremists. Following a series of threats to Christians, and the desecration of several holy sites, Israel’s most senior Catholic cleric warned of a "wave of extremist terror" in the Jewish state.
Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi said today: "The Pope wants an open popemobile and a normal car. The local security officials took the wishes of the Pope into consideration. I don't think there was too much discussion about that."
The Pope has invited a Muslim and a rabbi to join him on the trip in what the Vatican called “an absolute first”. Francis wanted to show that it was "normal" to have friends from other faiths, Fr Lombardi said. Both are longtime friends from Francis' days as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. Rabbi Abraham Skorka co-authored a book with the then-Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio on inter-faith dialogue and Omar Abboud is based at the Islamic Centre of the Argentine Republic. Fr Lombardi said: "This dimension of inter-faith dialiogue is an extremely strong and explicit signal'' in a region of conflict. The rabbi and the imam are both scheduled to be at events both in the Palestinian Territories and at key Jewish sites such as the Western Wall and the memorial to the Holocaust, the Vatican said. However Rabbi Skorka will join the trip only in Bethlehem, missing the first day in Jordan (24 May) because it falls on the Jewish Sabbath.
The threat of a possible attack timed with the Pope’s visit is thought to come from far-right Jewish groups over plans for Francis to hold a Mass at the Cenacle, which is believed to be the site of the Last Supper, but is also adjacent to King David’s Tomb. The extremist groups believe, despite denials by the Government, that Israel may be about to hand over sovereignty of the Cenacle, to the Vatican.
Hundreds of protesters gathered there on Monday, in opposition to the rumoured deal. Meanwhile a death threat has appeared on a building belonging to the Vatican where Francis is scheduled to meet the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Daubed in Hebrew on the Office of the Assembly of Bishops at the Notre Dame Centre in Jerusalem (pictured inset, above) were the words: "Death to Arabs and Christians and all those who hate Israel."
Anti-Christian messages also appeared on a Catholic Church, near a Jewish Orthodox neighbourhood including the words: "David is for the Jews. Jesus is garbage."
The Latin Patriarch, Fouad Twal, said that a wave of fanaticism and intimidation against Christians was "poisoning" the festive spirit in the city in the run-up to the historic visit. “Currently, the acts of unrestrained vandalism are poisoning the atmosphere, an atmosphere of coexistence, cooperation, especially now, two weeks before the visit of Pope Francis,” he continued.
Following the threats, the Vatican has expressed alarm over intimidation of Christians in the Holy Land and urged Israel to safeguard Christian holy sites.
The Roman Catholic Church in Jerusalem said that "it was very concerned about the lack of security" for Christian property and what they called the "lack of responsiveness from the political sector" after earlier attacks. They feared "an escalation of violence" on Christian sites during the visit.
Secret services believe those responsible are Tag Mehir, an extremist right-wing Jewish organisation who retaliate in the face of any attempt by the Government to prevent settlement building. The hard core is said to consist of only 100 or so members but is supported by other groups who share their goal, which is to heighten tensions and subvert any political solution.
The frequency of attacks has risen sharply in the past month since the Israeli military demolished part of an illegal West Bank settlement. The Pope is due to visit Israel, Jordan, the West Bank and Jerusalem between 24 and 26 May. Nine days of special prayer have been organised in preparation for the pastoral visit asking that the pilgrimage bear fruit of peaceful coexistence in all the Middle East.
Christian communities in the Holy Land and all over the world will take part in individual and community prayer, fasting and Adoration to support the Pope’s pilgrimage.