The National – 10 May 2009
As Pope Benedict XVI prepares to leave Jordan and head for Israel tomorrow on the next step of his tour of the Holy Land, the city of Nazareth is in a race to complete an amphitheatre to host tens of thousands of pilgrims expected to celebrate his main public Mass in Israel on Thursday.
Officials in Nazareth, renowned as the hometown of Jesus, are revelling both in the Vatican’s choice of their city for the Mass and in the Israeli government’s agreement to invest US$5 million (Dh18.4m) – nearly half its total budget for the visit – to construct the venue.
Nazareth, the largest Arab community in Israel, has had only six weeks to build the 40,000-seat amphitheatre and design a new road system, after the Vatican was put under pressure from local Arab Christian leaders into a last-minute switch of locations.
With the world watching, Nazareth officials privately admit, the Israeli government wanted the Papal Mass staged in Israel’s biggest northern city, Haifa.
Nazareth, overcrowded and poorly developed, was not considered the right showcase.
But the new amphitheatre on the Mount of Precipice overlooking Nazareth is fuelling hopes that the city will soon rival Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as a destination for major events, including concerts.
“Nazareth, the home of the Holy Family, should be the most important Christian site in the world,” said Tareq Shihada, the director of the Nazareth Cultural and Tourism Association. “After decades of neglect, we are finally getting the chance to put our city back on the map.”
It is only the third time a pope has arrived in Israel, the last occasion being John Paul II’s visit for the millennium.
The Israeli government, which is hoping to cash in on a rise in Christian tourism both during and in the wake of the visit, has invested more than $10m on a facelift of the country’s major pilgrimage sites.
Of the Holy Land’s three important Christian cities, only Nazareth is under full Israeli sovereign control. Bethlehem is ruled by the Palestinian Authority and the holy places of East Jerusalem are considered by the international community to be under illegal Israeli occupation.
But despite the significance of Nazareth to Christians and its imposing Basilica marking the spot where Mary is believed to have been told she was carrying the son of God, city leaders have long complained of being shortchanged in government funding.
Noam Shoval, a geographer at Hebrew University in Jerusalem who studies Israel’s historic cities, said that for many decades Nazareth had faced obstacles to its development. In particular, successive governments had given preferential grants to the neighbouring Jewish city of Tiberias, attracting developers and hotel owners.
Today, Nazareth receives the same development priority, he said, but in practice tour operators rarely allow groups to visit the city for more than an hour or two.
A report last year by the Galilee Society revealed a general picture of underinvestment in Arab communities. It showed that Jewish local authorities received nearly three times as much funding from the government as their Arab counterparts, despite 61 of Israel’s 69 poorest communities being Arab.
Ihab Sabbah, a Nazareth official who headed the lobbying over the location of the Papal Mass, said the city was still smarting from its failure to be chosen for the Mass conducted by John Paul II in 2000.
Instead, it was staged at the Mount of Beatitudes, close to Tiberias, although the Pope did briefly visit Nazareth’s Basilica.
“This time we made Vatican officials very conscious of the affront they would cause Israel’s Christian community if Nazareth was not chosen,” said Mr Sabbah, a nephew of Michel Sabbah, who retired as the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem last year.
“Although many government officials were pressing for Haifa, we pointed out to the Vatican in the strongest terms that that city has no connection to Christianity.”
Mr Sabbah said Nazareth had lost out on hosting the Mass in 2000 after the election in 1996 of a right wing government under Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr Netanyahu reneged on some of the funding for Nazareth’s renovation pledged by the previous government of Yitzhak Rabin, he said.
The Rabin government, he added, had been sensitive to criticisms that Nazareth’s ramshackle infrastructure would reflect badly on Israel when the Pope visited.
In the end, much of Nazareth’s Old City, close to the Basilica, was spruced up for the millennium, but only the foundations of the amphitheatre were ever built.
“We are now completing the amphitheatre in record time – we are achieving in six weeks a project that was originally intended to take six years,” he said.
Mr Shihada said there was an irony that Mr Netanyahu was overseeing the completion of the amphitheatre, when his earlier government had halted the same project more than a decade ago.
There are about 140,000 Christians in Israel – comprising a tenth of the country’s Arab minority – among a general population of seven million.