Francis Offers Hope for Bethlehem: New mayor looks forward to Pope's May visit

Palestinian girls in traditional clothes stand on a field cleared of land mines in the West Bank village of Husan, near Bethlehem, last December.

Pope Francis' "pilgrimage of prayer" is a revival of hope for the people of Bethlehem, said Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun.

"The pope's coming here represents peace and hope and love," said Baboun, a Catholic and the first female mayor of Bethlehem. "In a situation of discrimination and hardship, this represents hope for us. Bethlehem needs a revival, not in faith, but a revival of hope."

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"We are in desperate need for anyone who can make peace to do so," she said. "We hope the pope will be able to mobilize the peace process and the process of the justice we really need."

During his three-day visit to the Holy Land May 24-26, the only public papal Mass will be in Bethlehem May 25, and Baboun said she is well aware of the responsibility that gives the city.

Though details about the visit are yet to be finalized, the city, which has already played host to three previous popes in modern times, expects to welcome 7,000-8,000 worshippers from all over, and hotels are already reporting they are overbooked.

Blessed John Paul II came on a six-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land in March 2000, and Pope Benedict XVI spent a similar amount of time during his visit in May 2009. Unlike his predecessors, Pope Francis, who has called his visit a "pilgrimage of prayer" will not be traveling to Galilee.

As in the previous papal visits, the papal Mass will be held in Bethlehem's Nativity Square. The municipality is preparing for the visit in coordination with the Palestinian Authority presidential office, the Palestinian representative to the Vatican and church officials, said Baboun.

When Baboun sits at her desk, she can look out the window to see the Church of the Nativity. Behind her desk hang two large framed pictures of her meetings with Pope Francis over the past year, once officially as the mayor of Bethlehem and once as a member of a presidential delegation.

During her visit as the mayor of Bethlehem, she presented the pope with a hand-carved Baby Jesus prepared by a master artisan, and she said she was struck by the way Pope Francis listened to her.

"The way he looked at me, the way he listened to me: He is a master in person-to-person (communication)," she said. "He looks at you in a way which says: I am with you. He gave me a blessing from Rome, and now he is going to come to Bethlehem to keep hope renewed as well as to live the blessing of Bethlehem."

Baboun said although they are working on improving the infrastructure and sprucing up the square for the visit, they are "not going to exaggerate."

"Bethlehem is Bethlehem, and it welcomes everybody who comes for real spiritual (renewal)," she said.

Pope Francis has said his main intention is to commemorate the historic 1964 meeting between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople. Pope Francis is expected to meet the current Orthodox spiritual leader, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, in Jerusalem after he visits Bethlehem.

Baboun predicted Pope Francis' visit to Bethlehem would be more personal than his visit to Jerusalem, which she described as historic.

"The blessing that (Pope Francis) gives the people is very special. The pope represents something very important and significant for the worshippers in Palestine, not only for us as worshippers but for us as Palestinians," said Baboun.

His role in leading and speaking out for the most unfortunate is "very significant," she said.

"For me he is leading similar to the Way of the Cross which Jesus led, for everybody. It is not only an expression for us, but for everyone," said Baboun.

Baboun said she believes the pope will lead by just seeing and listening. His presence in the city will give strength to the people and help them keep steadfast, she said. When the papal Mass is broadcast from Bethlehem, she said, it will show that the city is still on the map, that the Christians living there are the living stones of the Christian faith in the place of its birth.

"It is a confirmation that we are here," she said.

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