JERUSALEM — In spite of obvious danger, Pope Benedict XVI decided that his pilgrimage to the Holy Land would be an "open" one.

Wadie Abunassar, who, as the local Church's media coordinator for the pilgrimage, was privy to every detail of the planning process, said it was the Pope's decision to open the windows of his Popemobile almost everywhere he went, including the Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem.

"He wanted to be as close as possible to the people, and they appreciated this. It shows that he had no fears, that he felt calm and comfortable with the people," Abunassar said.

That was an important part of the Pope's encouragement of Holy Land Christians, members of a minority group that is struggling to maintain its presence in the land of Christ's birth.

The open windows decision resonated with Salma Sidawi, who said seeing the Pope up close "means everything to me."

"His presence here reminds the world that we, who have been here since the Church originated, are still here," said Sidawi, during a deeply moving Mass near the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem.

When the Vatican first announced that Pope Benedict would be visiting the Holy Land, local Christians greeted the news with excitement. But they also wondered aloud whether or not the pilgrimage would change their situation for the better.

A shortage of job prospects, coupled with the constant threat of war — especially in Gaza — and the rise of militant Islam has prompted the younger generation of Christians to seek a better life abroad.

The situation is far less dire in Israel, where Christians have freedom of movement and rights guaranteed under Israeli law, but here too they experience war and sometimes feel discriminated against by their non-Christian neighbors.

While it is difficult to gauge the long-term effects of the papal visit, the feedback so far has been heartening, says Abunassar, a Catholic from Jerusalem.

"I believe this trip brought a lot of hope and joy to local Christians," he said. "This is what the people are telling us, and so are many Muslims and Jews."

Call for Homeland

Christians, Abunassar said, were touched both spiritually and practically by the pilgrimage. "The most important thing was the presence of the Pope himself. It is one thing to imagine the Pope in a theoretical way. It is another thing to see him, close-up, among the people."

More than anything, Abunasser said, local Christians were grateful for the Pope's genuine concern for their situation, a concern he shared throughout his pilgrimage and even in Rome following his visit.

"The fact that he mentioned the local Church in most of his speeches was very significant for us," he said. "Material support is helpful, but it comes and goes. What is really important to us is knowing we are in the Pope's prayers and that we are not forgotten."

Although assisting the local Christian community was the Pope's primary mission, his words and actions also touched non-Christians, Abunassar said.

"He gave a lot of hope to all inhabitants of the Holy Land. He left the impression that he is aware of the challenges facing all of us."

As an integral part of the Palestinian people, Holy Land Christians were gratified by the Pope's call for "a sovereign Palestinian homeland" and his reference to Israel's towering security barrier, which has prevented terrorist attacks but also sealed Palestinians inside the West Bank, causing a great deal of hardship.

While the lack of peace is the overriding issue for everyone in the region, local Christians say the shortage of employment and housing is causing many young people to emigrate to Western countries.

Housing Problem

Christians, whose families tend to be smaller on average than Muslim families, compete for housing in congested areas and often cannot afford the high rents charged in and around Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

"It is difficult to live here, to earn a living, and to raise a family," said Sidawi, who works in the kitchen of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Seated under a shady olive tree and wearing a yellow and white scarf with the Vatican insignia around her neck, she said the Vatican should encourage local Church institutions to earmark some of their land for residential housing designated for Christians.

"The Church needs to request building permits from the government and build apartments, both for young couples and for older people like me who rent an apartment. That, more than anything, will keep us here."

Andre Mobarak, a young Catholic tour guide from the Old City of Jerusalem, said 30 of the 35 students in his college graduating class have left the country "because they want to raise a normal family, to get married, have a good job, and live in safety."

Attending the Mass with his wife, Mobarak, who has a degree in business administration, said it is difficult for Christian Arabs like himself to find work in either Israel or the West Bank.

"The Palestinians think we're Zionists because we live in East Jerusalem," which is under Israeli control, "and the Israelis think we're terrorists because we're Arabs," Mobarak said, shaking his head in frustration.

Boost for Tourism?

Despite the problems Christians face here, Abunassar emphasized that the Holy Land is a safe place to visit.

He and other Christians hope that their sisters and brothers overseas will heed the Pope's call for pilgrimages to the Holy Land, something the Israeli Ministry of Tourism is promoting with a new $7 million campaign. It's something that would benefit not only Israelis but many Arab Christians who base their livelihoods on small shops selling native religious goods.

"The Pope came in peace and left in peace," Abunassar said. "We hope Christian pilgrims will heed his message and follow in his footsteps."

Michele Chabin writes
from Jerusalem.