The pope, the president and Palestine
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During his visit to Palestine in May 2014, Pope FrancisPope FrancisPope: No one should seek to profit from pandemic Priest tapped to be bishop by Pope Francis resigns after sexual abuse probe Pope plans first trip outside Rome since start of pandemic MORE made an unscheduled stop in Bethlehem, the little town where Jesus was born. He placed his hand on the 30-foot high concrete structure that Palestinians refer to as the "apartheid wall" just below graffito: "Pope: we need someone to speak about justice." He prayed there while a little girl waved a Palestinian flag and camera shutters sounded around him.


This pope, who named himself after St. Francis of Assisi so that he would never forget the marginalized among us, has already met with President Obama and will address a joint session of Congress this week. Along with millions of American Catholics, Palestinians in the U.S., Palestine and around the world will be listening to the pope's message. The situation in Palestine-Israel is among the topics that the pope is expected to discuss with the president, and perhaps in his address to Congress as well. Given that the Obama administration is engaged in a reassessment of its policy in Palestine-Israel and that both the Republican Speaker of the House and the Democratic minority leader are Roman Catholics, Palestinians may have reason to hope that the pope's words won't fall on deaf ears.

Having a fearless champion of peace in the U.S. at this moment couldn't be better timing. Palestinians hope that, while he is in the U.S., the Pope will encourage American Catholics to make pilgrimages to Palestine, not just to walk where Jesus walked but to stand in solidarity with their Palestinian brothers and sisters, and to act as witnesses to their struggles. American Catholic churches might also "adopt" Palestinian churches and help support them at a time when their agricultural land is being confiscated, their economy is devastated and their parishioners are being evicted in favor of Jewish-only settlements.

But why, of all of the pressing issues that the pope might discuss with U.S. officials, might he speak of the enduring conflict in Palestine? For one thing, the pope is surely concerned about the dwindling Christian population in the birthplace of Jesus. In places like Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth, there is only a shadow of the former Christian presence that once was. And he may well be frustrated by the inability of Palestinian Christians to access their holy sites while tourists from around the world are able to do so freely. He is also likely aware that there is a rising number of U.S. churches that are discussing divestment of their stock portfolios from companies that profit from the Israeli occupation.

But of most concern to the pope is that the conflict in Palestine-Israel not turn into a religious war. Scenes of settlers and the Israeli military battling Muslim worshippers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque after Friday prayers and the recent settler firebombing attacks against Palestinian families makes this fear very real. Whether poverty or climate change, time and again this pope has shown that he is concerned with more than just matters affecting his own flock of 1.2 billion. He hasn't been afraid to speak truth to power and Palestinians have reason to believe the pope will speak on their behalf to those with power over their situation in the U.S.

Unlike his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, Francis has been undaunted on peace between Israelis and Palestinians. As an example, compare the difference between Benedict's first trip to the Holy Land and that of Francis. Benedict permitted Israel to orchestrate his 2009 trip to the region and stood by silently during an event in Jerusalem as an Israeli official referred to the city as the undivided Jewish capital. In stark contrast, at a delicate time when the Catholic Church was engaged in a legal battle to halt Israel's confiscation of church properties and agricultural lands belonging to Christian families in Cremisan, Francis announced his intention to visit the "State of Palestine."

A month later, on the anniversary of the Palestinian catastrophe known as the Nakba, which saw the uprooting of three quarters of a million Palestinian Christians and Muslims from present-day Israel to make way for a Jewish state, the Vatican released the news that it would be signing a treaty with the "State of Palestine." Then, following his trip to Palestine, the pope named as saints two Palestinian nuns and referred to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as "an angel of peace" when Abbas traveled to Rome for the canonization ceremony.

With the fight over the Iran nuclear deal all but done and attention now turning back to how to move Palestine-Israel peace forward, there are other actions that might be taken in the waning days of the Obama administration, e.g., ending the tax-exempt status for U.S. "charities" sending millions in private donations for settlement construction in the West Bank; investigating and prosecuting U.S. citizens engaged in settler terrorism in the West Bank; and denying products produced or manufactured in Israeli settlements from benefiting from duty-free treatment in the U.S.

Certainly, the rumored signing of a new memorandum of understanding between the Obama administration and Israel for $45 billion dollars in military aid over another 10-year period isn't the type of reengagement from the U.S. that Palestinians are looking for.

Though the pope may not wish to make specific statements regarding foreign policy in his address to Congress (unlike Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to Congress during the Iran negotiations), Palestinians hope that Pope Francis will encourage President Obama to recognize the state of Palestine as the Vatican has done — even if, with presidential elections looming, having the president take such action might be asking for a miracle. But who better to look to for a miracle than this pope?

Hassan is a human rights attorney and former coordinator and legal adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team. She is currently a Middle East fellow at the New America Foundation.