Father Sliman Smandar has seen a thing or two in his 40 years as a priest at the Latin Patriarchate in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem. The veteran priest has officiated over important masses and hosted high-ranking guests, including Pope Paul II during the pontiff's visit in 2000.
So despite the fact that Father Sliman will be playing the organ tomorrow at a mass attended by Pope Benedict XVI that will be broadcast around the world, the priest has kept his calm.
"I will be playing for about 15 minutes in the presence of the pope and a congregation of over 300 people, which is not new to me. The choir is ready and so am I. We have worked on a few selections, including the "Papal March" [by French composer Charles Gounod]. What will happen if I make a mistake? In the worst case, no one will see me, right? I will be seated behind the organ, upstairs, and no one will know that it's me."
Around Christian Jerusalem yesterday there was no major commotion over the imminent arrival of their Holy Father; just restrained, businesslike preparation. At one location, they were hard at work dragging a ladder to hang a "welcome" sign. At another spot, a municipal maintenance vehicle was noisily brushing the pavement clean. There were groups of police on every corner, mostly surveying the scene with bored looks as Catholic scouts decorated the alleyways of the Christian Quarter with festive flags.
Along those same alleys, merchants awaited the expected throngs of pilgrims.
"Meanwhile, nothing is happening," said a grocery owner. "We will be eternally grateful if anyone at all comes in to buy a small bottle of mineral water."
There is full occupancy at the small hotels in Jerusalem's Old City, but the people in the streets are mostly journalists. As of yesterday afternoon, according to the Government Press Office, no fewer than 786 foreign press teams had arrived in the country. They will cover every second of the pope's visit to the 25 locations that will be open to the media. Many of the events will be international and inter-religious in character, but from the standpoint of the Christian community in Jerusalem, the highlight of the pope's stay will be his visit to the chilly rooms of the Latin Patriarchate. The visit of the last pope is remembered here with some disappointment, after he sufficed with a brief stop in the courtyard of the patriarchate, before moving on.
Pope Benedict has promised to stay for a special mass and a festive luncheon to be attended by leading members of the small Christian community of Jerusalem and the West Bank. Over 300 will attend the lunch, but even at the nearby Rossini Restaurant, which will be supplying the food, they kept their cool.
"For an appetizer, we will serve Palestinian tabbouli salad with fried kubbeh," chef Joseph Asfour said, "and the main course will be herb-filled filet of mutton with potatoes and eggplant stuffed with risotto, and for dessert, berries and rosewater sorbet, which will be served with coffee and baklava." In the same manner in which he recited the menu, he rattled off the names of people who had dined on his fare in the past: Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas, Tony Blair, Condoleezza Rice and Richard Gere.
"Clearly having the pope is something special. The fact that he is coming fills us with pride and joy, and also is important for peace," Asfour said. He sees himself as an ambassador of Palestinian gourmet cooking, with inspiration from French and Italian cuisine. "I am a member of the Chefs for Peace organization. Gourmet cuisine is new to East Jerusalem, and it's very important. If there wasn't gourmet cuisine here, all of the VIPs would have to eat schnitzel and fries. We wouldn't want that to happen."
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