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Palestinians raise threat to land with Pope Francis

May 25 2014, 19:22 IST
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SummaryJuliette Bannoura hopes Pope Francis can save her family's four acres (1.6 hectares) of olive groves and other Palestinian-owned lands in the scenic Cremisan Valley south of Jerusalem from the path of Israel's separation barrier.

Juliette Bannoura hopes Pope Francis can save her family's four acres (1.6 hectares) of olive groves and other Palestinian-owned lands in the scenic Cremisan Valley south of Jerusalem from the path of Israel's separation barrier.

Bannoura, 36, was among a select few Palestinian Christians who had lunch with the pontiff Sunday during his pilgrimage to Bethlehem, the cradle of Christianity.

During the hour-long meal, which included stuffed peppers and ice cream for dessert, she and her husband Elias - a Spanish-speaker - outlined the threat to the terraced valley. The area is also home to a monastery and convent sitting on dozens of acres (hectares) of church-owned land.

Many landowners in the valley, including Bannoura, are from Beit Jala, a Christian town of 16,000 next to Bethlehem. ''This valley is very, very important to us,'' she said. ''It's our heritage, our culture, it's our tradition.''

Bannoura said the pope listened carefully. ''He said `I'm very interested in your case,' and he said he will look at it when he goes back,'' she said.

She said she and her husband presented him with an atlas of historic Palestine that illustrates the political changes over the decades. The pope promised to study it carefully, she said.

In all, five Palestinian families met with the pope after he celebrated Mass on a stage in Manger Square, just outside the Church of the Nativity, built over Jesus' traditional birth grotto.

''The families represent various branches of Palestinian society who faced problems with the Israeli authorities,'' said Jamal Khader, a senior member of the local Roman Catholic clergy.

One family was from the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian territory on the other side of Israel, which has been isolated by Israeli and Egyptian border blockades since the Islamic militant Hamas seized it in 2007. In another family from the West Bank, a son, freed in a prisoner swap with Israel, was deported to Gaza. A third family lost village land in the Mideast war over Israel's 1948 creation.

Each family had a few minutes to present their case, said Bannoura. Toward the end, Bannoura asked the pope to sign eight photographs of members of her extended family who were unable to attend. She said she also asked for and received a hug from the pontiff.

Francis has said his three-day Middle East visit is largely meant as a spiritual journey. However, both Israelis and Palestinians have been

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