- An Iraqi newspaper yesterday quoted an unnamed lawmaker as saying that Pope Benedict may visit Baghdad as part of his tour of the Middle East (CathNews May 5, 2009) -- however, Vatican spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi and The Apostolic Nuncio to Iraq and Jordan, Archbishop Francis A. Chullikat, denied the story (Catholic News Agency May 5, 2009).
- The Central Statistical Office of the Church has published information detailing the presence and ministry of the Church in the region, in anticipation of the papal pilgrimage.
Among other statistics, the report states that "Jordan has a population of 5,720,000 of whom 109,000 (1.91 percent) are Catholic" and "Israel and the Palestinian Territories have a population of 7,180,000 of whom 130,000 (1.81 percent) are Catholic." (The report is a bit dated, having been last updated as of December 31, 2007).
On a related note, the Associated Press reports: When Pope Benedict XVI comes to the Holy Land next week, he will greet a community of believers whose numbers are gradually eroding" (May 6, 2009):
Dwarfed by Jewish and Muslim populations, young Christians are increasingly leaving to seek their futures elsewhere, especially those in the Palestinian territories and east Jerusalem. Christians say they are treated with suspicion by both Jews and Muslims and feel caught in an increasingly polarized conflict between them.
"It became a Muslim cause and a Jewish cause, so Christians, we have nothing to do," said Zakaria Mishriki, a 32-year-old Christian storekeeper in Jerusalem's Old City who has cousins in several U.S. states and Canada.
The last decade has also seen rising Islamic sentiment in Palestinian society, which has increased pressure on Christians, said Mishriki, whose shop offers wooden nativity scenes and crucifixes.
Meanwhile, Jewish Israelis do not differentiate between Muslims and Christians and consider all Palestinians a threat, added Mishriki, who was born to a Catholic family and now considers himself Protestant.
- That said, Israel anticipates 10,000 Christian pilgrims to accompany Pope Benedict XVI on his trip to the Holy Land next week, and an increase in the number of Catholic visitors this year as a consequence, according to Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov. Jerusalem Post May 6, 2009. Meseznikov also noted that the number of Catholic tourists will be exceeded by the number of evangelicals:
Three million tourists visited Israel last year, including 1.8 million Christians, breaking the record set in 2000.
A whopping 70 percent of Christian tourists last year were evangelicals, Meseznikov said.
- Zenit News reports that The king of Jordan plans to break protocol this Friday when he receives Benedict XVI (May 5, 2009):
[Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi] noted that King Abdallah II will welcome the Pontiff at the airport where he is scheduled to arrive at 2:30 p.m.. And in a particularly unusual gesture, he and Queen Rania will again accompany the Holy Father to the airport when he leaves on Monday.King Abdallah II has been a vocal advocate of interreligious dialogue -- his Amman Message (27th of Ramadan 1425 AH / 9th November 2004) encouraged the Islamic world to forsake extremism. In addition:
one of King Abdallah's advisors is Ghazi bin Muhammad, who coordinated the initiative from 138 Muslim scholars who responded to 2006 attacks against the Pope following his address in Regensburg.
It was this group who wrote "A Common Word," which eventually led to the formation of the Catholic-Muslim Forum in Rome.
- The visit to the Holy Land was among the first that Benedict wanted to make, says Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches. Zenit News has the interview:
"He had to make the trips that were already scheduled in the preceding pontificate," the cardinal explained, pointing to World Youth Day in Cologne and the World Meeting of Families in Spain.
But, he added, the Pontiff's "great desire as a first trip and, we could say, as the meaning of the whole of his pontificate toward Jesus, toward the Word of God, was to go to the Holy Land. The principal trip to set the tone of all of his pontificate was this one."