At all levels, the visit of Pope Francis to Jordan and Palestine was a huge success.
For about 26 hours everything worked as planned. And the few unplanned moments worked out quite well, leaving indelible memories and images.
The Pope’s visit was billed as a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and the slogan chosen by the Vatican was unity, in reference to the historic meeting planned with the head of the Orthodox Church in Jerusalem.
Fifty years after a similar trip was made by Pope Paul VI, the trip was aimed at rekindling the spirit of unity among Christians of different denominations, as well as an interfaith effort.
Pope Francis was accompanied by Muslim and Jewish religious leaders (one each) from his days; the spirit of unity was evident in various meetings, speeches and homilies.
But the highlight of the entire trip was not planned, rehearsed or even expected.
The Pope had decided not to cross any checkpoints to enter the U.N.-declared non-member state of Palestine and so the idea of an image of the Pope interacting with the occupation or seeing the wall was thought to have been bypassed by the decision to visit Palestine flying a Jordanian military helicopter straight to Palestine.
As he was driving around Bethlehem in his open car, the Pontiff passed by the entrance of the Aida refugee camp and noticed the separation wall. It is hard for anyone not to take notice of the 10-metre-high wall (which the media insist on calling a separation barrier) and it is even harder for the Jesuit Pope who has empathy for the weak and oppressed not to stop.
To lessen the impact of the image of the Pope at the wall, Israeli media spin tried to show that the point where the Pope stopped was simply a barrier between Israel and the West Bank.
That is not true. The wall, built deep on Palestinian land, divides the Aida camp in half, surrounds Rachel’s Tomb and cuts off Palestinian communities from each other for the exclusive benefit of Jews.
The Pontiff’s visit in Jordan had its own headline-grabbing moment.
After being personally driven by the King to the baptismal site, the Pope met handicapped children as well as Syrian and other refugees.
In his speech to those gathered, including journalists and live TV cameras, the Pope sounded angry about the continuation of the violence in Syria.
An Associated Press report said that the Pope deviated from his prepared remarks to blast arms traders praying to God to “convert those who seek war, those who make and sell weapons!”
The Pope reiterated his call for peace but did not spare the group he felt was responsible for making war.
“We all want peace, but looking at the tragedy of war, looking at the wounded, seeing so many people who left their homeland who were forced to go away, I ask: ‘Who sells weapons to these people to make war’?” he asked.
“This is the root of evil: the hatred, the love of money.”
The visit went without a hitch. Security officials were worried about the insistence of this humble Pontiff not to travel in a glass-covered vehicle, to be able to greet and touch the believers.
In Jordan, Christians came from Lebanon to swell the numbers of those from Jordan, Syria and Iraq.
In Bethlehem, Christians from Gaza were allowed to participate in the Manger Square mass, and a large contingent of Palestinian Christians came from the Galilee, even though they were unhappy that the Holy See had skipped a visit to Nazareth and other important stops during any Holy Land pilgrimage.
In Israel, the Pope met with President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
An exchange between the Pope and the Israeli premier reflected badly on the latter.
The Pope refused Netanyahu’s attempt to claim Jesus by saying he lived in that land and spoke Hebrew. The Pope, whose Jesuit order is known for high scholarship, responded immediately that Jesus spoke Aramaic, leaving a surprised Netanyahu to say “yes, but he also spoke Hebrew.”
The Pope had earlier bypassed the Israeli prime minister, when he invited the Palestinian and Israeli presidents, even though the Israeli presidency is symbolic.
In addition to the political and symbolic gains made during the Pope’s visit, one of the most important goals was to strengthen and empower the local Christian community.
High-level visits such as that by the Pope go a long way towards strengthening the resolve of Arab Christians to stay put in the land where Jesus was born and raised.
As one Jordanian Christian woman said while glued to the TV set, “every Christian that has emigrated should come back.”
This article was first published in The Jordan Times on May 28, 2014.
Daoud Kuttab, an award winning Palestinian journalist who resides in Jerusalem and Amman. Mr. Kuttab is the director general of Community Media Network a media NGO that runs a radio station in Amman (al balad radio 92.4fm) a newsweb site ammannet.net and a TV production operation in Palestine Penmedia (penmedia.ps) which is producing the Palestinian version of Sesame street. You can read his blogs on DaoudKuttab.com and find him on Twitter @DaoudKuttab.