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On why the Pope must join the struggle to liberate Jerusalem

Expectations are high as Pope Francis begins his tour of the Holy Land. While he is known for his outspoken support for the poor and oppressed, the Vatican has insisted that the purpose of the Pope's visit is primarily religious and "absolutely not political".

And yet, according to the Pope's itinerary, while in Jerusalem he is scheduled to lay a wreath at the grave of Theodore Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement – a racist political ideology that privileges one particular group over all others and which has involved the ethnic cleansing of an indigenous people from their homeland.

But that is not the only problem. Many Palestinians view any visit to Jerusalem, a city whose people are living under a brutal military occupation, as an act of normalisation. In other words, any such visit reifies the status quo by giving recognition or even legitimacy to the Israeli occupiers, which in turn sanctions their acts of mass violence and oppression.

This perspective should not be new to Pope Francis, who is from Argentina. Many of his co-religionists in Latin America have long argued for an understanding of Christianity as a living theology that must include a response to the contemporary social and political structures of oppression that create centres of privilege and peripheries of suffering.

Here theology is not just faith, but a living expression of that faith – a historicised faith – because it is a direct response to the questions of those who are born into this world already marginalised as a result of present day social and political structures not of their own making. Failing to respond to this oppression is not an option for the faithful. As Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, one of the founders of Latin American Christian liberation theology, elaborates: "If faith is a commitment to God and human beings, it is not possible to live in today's world without a commitment to the process of liberation."

According to this framework, sin is evident in the oppressive structures that exploit humans. Thus, Christian liberation theology is a revolutionary project that seeks to empower the oppressed through religious ideas and practices – where a personal commitment to God and humans is imagined as the means to realise radical social change for all.

Simply put, oppression and suffering anywhere must be resisted by all everywhere. Hence the quotation by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr, who himself embraced Christian liberation theology: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

This is similar to the call that international solidarity activists are making today in the form of the Global March to Jerusalem (GMJ), an interfaith initiative that is asking for people of conscience to mobilise in the streets in peaceful protests on 6th and 7th June, which coincides with the 47th anniversary of Israel's occupation of the eastern part of the Holy City, to demand an end to the occupation of Jerusalem and freedom for all of Palestine.

Of course, many are already familiar with the religious oppression that Palestinian Muslims and Christians experience daily in the Holy City.

Under the Israeli occupation, most Palestinian Muslims are denied access to Jerusalem and are forbidden from praying at Al-Aqsa Mosque, while extremist Jewish settlers increasingly tour the mosque, accompanied by Israeli occupation soldiers, in an act of provocation illustrative of the Zionist intention to Judaise the third holiest site in Islam.

Meanwhile, Palestinian Christians are increasingly being prevented from traveling to the Holy City. Many Christians in Jerusalem fear that even they will not be able to see the Pope during his visit after the Israeli occupation authorities imposed a curfew in their neighbourhoods. In a message sent to the Archbishop of Jerusalem and Palestine, Christians of East Jerusalem stated that: "The curfew is yet another attempt by the occupying power to deny our existence. It is unacceptable for the Pope to pass along the narrow streets of the Christian Quarter, yet find devoid of any signs of life and the faithful."

However, it is important to note that for Palestinians, Israel's occupation of Jerusalem means more than just religious oppression. In addition to Israel's blatant violation of Palestinians' right to worship, the socioeconomic situation in Jerusalem also continues to deteriorate at an alarming level as a result of Israel's occupation and apartheid policies.

This human suffering in Jerusalem is precisely what Christian liberation theology wants to call our attention to, declaring that it must actively be resisted by humans of all faiths.

The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) issued a report in May 2013 stating that the Palestinian economy in East Jerusalem "has been progressively isolated and constricted due to Israel's separation policies". According to the report, "it has been estimated that the Israeli separation barrier has imposed over $1 billion in direct losses to the economy of East Jerusalem since its construction began in 2003."

As former UN Special Rapporteur to the occupied Palestinian territories Richard Falk reminds us, the International Court of Justice has been "unequivocal" in its conclusion that Israel's construction of the separation wall in occupied Palestine is "contrary to international law". In addition to the wall, there are 22 military checkpoints in and around Jerusalem.

The UNCTAD report also found that "the poverty rate of Palestinian households rose from 68 per cent (in 2009) to 77 per cent (in 2010)…The available data indicate that 82 per cent of Palestinian children in East Jerusalem were living in poverty in 2010."

In addition to being forced to live in abject poverty, Palestinians in Jerusalem are also regularly subjected to what are known as "price tag" attacks by Jewish settlers who carry out these acts of violence with impunity even though the Israeli government says it is terrorism. The Associated Press recently quoted a UN report, which finds that "the annual rate of Israeli settler attacks against Palestinians has almost quadrupled in [the past] eight years."

In the lead up to the Pope's visit, Palestinians have been subjected to price tag attacks that incite further hatred and violence, with slogans like "Death to Arabs and Christians and all those who hate Israel" and "Price tag, King David is for the Jews, Jesus is garbage."

Palestinians continue to suffer under housing demolition orders as well, largely because the Israeli occupation authorities only allow Palestinians to construct on 12 per cent of their land in occupied East Jerusalem. According to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, the occupation authorities have already destroyed 147 structures this year.

All the while, Israel has been expanding plans to construct more illegal settlements. According to the BBC, an estimated 200,000 Jewish settlers currently live in East Jerusalem, alongside 370,000 Palestinians. Even US Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged that Israel's announcement in March that it had approved tenders for 708 new apartments in Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem is what derailed the latest round of peace talks.

And the list of injustices goes on and on. For example, although this type of news does not make the headlines, the Israeli authorities have revoked the Jerusalem ID cards of more than 11,000 Palestinians since 1995, tearing families and communities apart.

Gutiérrez says that in today's world, the question to be asked is: how to say to the poor and oppressed that God loves you? In order to answer this question, he believes it is necessary to struggle with the poor and oppressed, because "how to speak about God taking into account the sufferings of the poor is not easy. This question is larger than our possibilities to answer. We need to struggle with them against injustice in order to answer the question."

Pretending that visiting the Holy City is a religious act of worship while there are people living in this very land who are suffering under a brutal military occupation, not to mention the fact that there are millions of Palestinians who, unlike the Pope, cannot even visit their homeland, contradicts the notion that God loves us all. Struggling with them to liberate their lives and homeland is the only way to show them God's love.

The GMJ has called upon the Pope to act now to show the people of Palestine that they are loved by demanding the liberation of Jerusalem and all of Palestine, and extends the invitation to those striving for justice everywhere to join our struggle for liberation.

Visit the GMJ website and Facebook pages in Arabic and English for more information.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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