The first woman mayor of the town where Jesus was born referred to the strong connection they have with the Vatican, explaining that the recent visit of Pope Francis is an opportunity to work for justice. “All has started in Bethlehem. In Bethlehem the origin of the message of peace was resurrected to the world. In the Vatican it is the Church, St. Peter’s” Vera Baboun told CNA May 24, the day before Pope Francis was to celebrate Mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square. “This message of Bethlehem can remain empowered and sustained by the other identity in the Vatican,” she said. “It is a kind of relationship of connection, empowerment and keeping the star of Bethlehem enlightened.” “In other words, the Vatican can be the oil to keep the star of Bethlehem enlightened.”

As a mother of five children and the first woman mayor in Bethlehem, the second in all of Palestine, Baboun has met with Pope Francis on two occasions prior to his visit to her country during his three day pilgrimage to Jordan, Israel and Palestine.

Recalling her first meeting with the Roman Pontiff, the mayor explained that she was initially anxious, wondering if he remembered that in Bethlehem “we still exist as the living stones.” When giving him her gift, a small baby Jesus carved in Bethlehem by a local Palestinian artist, “I just said we are there, and he is there, and put it in his hands and said nothing.” However during the second encounter when she accompanied Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in his audience with the Pope “It was different,” and although only the president spoke with him “the atmosphere now went beyond assurance.” “It has to do with, we are all there together” she continued, stating that “you know Pope Francis is a man of the Gospel, par excellence. His saying, his acts, everything he does refers to the teachings in his simple manner.” When the president received a pen from the pontiff, Baboun recalled that he told him “I will use your gift when signing the peace agreement” between Israel and Palestine, “and I pray we will sign this peace agreement.” Pope Francis’ reactions, the mayor recounted, “were really the reactions of a spiritual and human leader. And that is very important for me as the mayor of Bethlehem. We’re not alone.” Expressing her expectations for the visit, Baboun noted that “it’s very difficult” to say because the answer also depends on other people. “Our expectations are our dreams. All of us live a lack of peace, and usually when you have a lack your dream is to fulfill the lack” she noted, “but the one who will fulfill the dream is not only us… more than one player must work in order to make our expectation a reality.” “We are not living the peace that we deserve and it is important to note that Bethlehem gave the message of peace to the whole world” and is “the only nation up until now under” Israeli occupation she observed. “Isn’t that ironic?” “For me the expectation is to put an end to that irony.” Reflecting on the words she would say to the Pope in her meeting with him ahead of Sunday’s Mass in the city’s Manger Square, Baboun explained that she would tell him that “Although your visit is religious and spiritual, it is to the Holy Land. Your motto is the motto of oneness. Let it be one.” “However the Holy Land, the land of the three faiths, doesn’t really live the practice of the real faith” the mayor noted, so “What I would tell him is for peace, we need courageous hearts. We need someone who masters speaking truth with a heart that is really brave.” “An ability to speak the truth. I would ask him is to say clearly that we need to live in justice. We need to be included.” Calling to mind how Pope Francis himself said that “we need to work to restore hope and to include the excluded,” the mayor stated that “We are excluded from justice. What I would ask him is to work to include us within justice.” Alan Holdren contributed to this piece.