Friday, May 30, 2014

The day I shook hands with Pope Francis

by Samia Khoury of Jerusalem

Sunday the 25th was a special day for us Palestinians and for me personally as I was one of those privileged to be invited to meet the Pope in Bethlehem. I was part of a delegation of five to hand him a letter on behalf of the indigenous Palestinian Christians.  His schedule was so tight that there was no time for me to read it, but as I handed it to him I told him what it is about;  what else but the story of our life under occupation.  I seized the opportunity also to present him with my book, Reflections from Palestine: A Journey of Hope, as well as the petition initiated by FOSNA  (Friends of Sabeel North America) regarding Palestinian children  prisoners in Israeli jails.  Sister Celestin,  of the order of St. Joseph and a retired teacher is a great admirer of the Pope.  She made  a symbolic card for him with flowers from Palestine which I inserted in my book.  The cleaning woman who has been begging the church for a larger house for her family of five begged me to deliver a letter she had written to the Pope.  So I did.  It will take him some time to read all the different letters, petitions and messages  that were handed to him, but I am sure he will eventually get to each one of them. He seemed the kind of man who would do that.
Ever since Pope Francis took office, he broke so many of the traditions, most important of all was abandoning the official residence and  moving into a humble residence.  He even broke the dress code and abandoned the red shoes.  He seemed so humble and compassionate, and his warm and sweet smile as I shook hands with him almost inspired me to give him a hug.
During the Mass in Manger Square I was fortunate to have a seat on the  second row in the middle which was exactly opposite the altar.  It was an awesome feeling to be attending a live Mass officiated by the Pope. Just as he was giving the blessing at the end of the service, the call to prayer from the minaret next to the church of Nativity was raised.  It had such a symbolic meaning as the words Allahu Akbar (God is great) came through the loud speaker while the worshippers were making the sign of the cross.  It was more meaningful than ever as Israel continues to pass rules to exclude the Christians from the Palestinian community.
The visit to Bethlehem was very well organized and went without a  hitch.  The municipality with a lady mayor and the committee in charge as well as the protocol people and security are all to be commended on a great job.  And with such a humble Pope the atmosphere was very relaxed.
Unfortunately the people in Jerusalem were not privileged to be on the streets to welcome the Pope.   The Israeli Police closed all the roads that led to the areas which he was going to visit, and turned the city into a ghost town.  Yet some of the young people of the Christian community were determined to challenge that and made arrangements with the Patriarchate to have presence on the way to the Holy Sepulcher where the Pope was going to meet the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. But the  Israeli police deprived them even of that privilege, and there was a rough encounter whereby many of them got beaten up  and thrown on the street. The Pope heard about it through an SOS letter that was delivered to him, so during the evening service at the Gethsemane he added the following prayer: 

"I wish to extend my heartfelt greetings to all Christians in Jerusalem: I would like to assure them that I remember them affectionately and that I pray for them, being well aware of the difficulties they experience in this city. I urge them to be courageous witnesses of the passion of the Lord but also of his resurrection, with joy and hope. "

About Samia Khoury

Samia Nasir Khoury retired in 2003 after serving for 17 years as president of Rawdat El-Zuhur, a coeducational elementary school for the lower income community in East Jerusalem. She continues to serve as treasurer of the board of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in East Jerusalem and on the board of trustees of Birzeit University in Birzeit, Palestine.

Samia was born in Jaffa, Palestine on November 24, 1933. She graduated from Birzeit College in 1950, and was awarded a BBA degree from Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, in 1954. 

Samia then returned to Birzeit, and worked from 1954-1960 at her former school as executive secretary, registrar and director of women students’ activities. Birzeit, which was founded by her aunt Nabiha Nasir in 1924, would eventually develop into the first university in Palestine. In 1960 she married Yousef Khoury, an engineer. After 44 years of marriage and the blessings of two children and six grandchildren, Yousef passed away in early 2004 in their beloved home of Jerusalem.

Samia was deeply involved with the YWCA, including serving as the national president of the YWCA of Jordan for two terms (as the Palestinian West Bank had been annexed to Jordan in 1950). When Jordan severed its ties with the West Bank in 1988, the YWCA of Palestine was reestablished, and she was its first president from 1991-96. Her breadth of international experience has also included addressing two UN NGO Forums: in New York in 1996, and in Athens in 2000.

Samia writes about justice, truth, and peace for the Palestinian people, the relationships between people and the land, the context of Christian-Jewish-Muslim relationships in the Holy Land, concerns for children in conflict, and gender issues.