On Friday, Israelis and Palestinians were finalizing their preparations for the arrival of Pope Francis, who will spend Saturday in Jordan before spending parts of Sunday and Monday in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, respectively.

A visit to Bethlehem from adjoining Jerusalem via the 300 Checkpoint revealed that Israeli authorities had put a fresh coat of paint on the processing terminal, and removed anti-Israel graffiti from a segment of the security wall Israel erected a few years ago to prevent further terror attacks. There was even a fresh coat of paint on the ground, which a worker was sanding.

The terminal was nearly deserted, and I was surprised to see only a handful of taxis waiting on the Palestinian side of the terminal.  The reason, I learned, was because Israel has prohibited the vast majority of Palestinians, such as workers, from using the terminal during the duration of the Pope’s visit, as well as a couple of days before. People who must leave the West Bank for humanitarian reasons, such as for cancer treatments, are still being allowed in and out, I was told. There are other ways to enter and exit Jerusalem, but the closing is causing inconvenience.

In Bethlehem, Palestinian workers could be seen filling up potholes on the route pilgrims will be taking to Manger Square. They, and presumably Pope Francis, will be able to see the wall, which is filled with graffiti and paintings of Palestinians “martyrs” who died attacking Israelis.

In Manger Square, plastic chairs were stacked high in readiness for the VIPs expected to attend the Holy Mass on Sunday. Posters with the Pope’s likeness graced shop windows. 

At 11:35 a.m. on Friday – the Muslim day of rest – the muezzin called the faithful to prayer via loudspeakers mounted on minarets all over the city. He also gave a loud, lengthy sermon.

When I inquired, someone in the Palestinian municipality told me that the Islamic authorities have agreed to spend just a minute or two reciting prayers on Sunday morning, without a sermon, and that the Mass will pause for just the time needed to enable Muslims to pray.  

The muezzin’s prayer reminded me that Bethlehem, the city of Jesus’ birth, is more Muslim than Christian these days.