Haifa, Israel – As he moves among the masses in Bethlehem Sunday during a much-anticipated tour of Israel and the Palestinian Authority-controlled West Bank, Pope Francis’ eyes may meet images of history's most cherished Christian-themed masterpieces -- digitally doctored with a bizarre, anti-Semitic twist.
The Palestinian Presidential Committee of Higher Affairs commissioned an open-air exhibition of works blending Christian art by masters such as Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Raphael,with sometimes graphic, digitized images of incidents allegedly from the long-running Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The PA’s hijacking of great paintings includes Raphael’s 1507 masterpiece, "The Deposition," which shows Jesus Christ -- now claimed as a Palestinian by the PA and not from Judea as documented in the Gospels. In the twisted interpretation commissioned for the Pope's visit, he is still shown being carried away after the Crucifixion, his upper body as painted more than 500years ago. But Christ's legs have been digitally altered and melded to the original painting to show those of an injured Palestinian clad in jeans being carried away as an Israeli soldier looks on.
“These images were requested specifically for the Pope’s visit,” Itamar Marcus, founder and director of Palestinian Media Watch (PMW), told FoxNews.com.
“The paintings clearly depict Jesus blending in with Palestinians. This is an ongoing and important part of Palestinian ideology as demonstrated on December 23 last year when, in his annual message to Christians, [PA president] Mahmoud Abbas referred to the birth of Jesus Christ as a Palestinian messenger of peace, attempting to give them [the Palestinians] a history they don’t have. The same message has been repeated throughout the Palestinian establishment, including by the Grand Mufti, and others.”
The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammad Ahmed Hussein, as recently as 2012 preached the extermination of the Jews and referred to the Jewish people as “the descendants of apes and pigs.” He is one of many religious leaders from the region due to meet with the pope during His Holiness’ historic visit and was appointed to his role in 2006 by Mahmoud Abbas.
Another painting to have been given a new twist by the Palestinians is Murillo’s "Christ healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda" (1670), in which the Pool of Bethesda has been redacted and replaced by an image of the security barrier erected by Israel after a spate of cross–border Palestinian suicide bomb attacks.
The original painting is on permanent exhibition at London’s world famous National Gallery, where its use by the PA as a propaganda tool came as something of a surprise.
“We never comment on anything like this,” Tracy Jones, spokeswoman for the National Gallery, told FoxNews.com. “What I can say is that nobody approached us for permission to do this.”
Jones confirmed that photo images of the painting are not copyrighted and that the use of photo images of other paintings from the National Gallery collection for unauthorized promotional/marketing purposes is not uncommon.
The Palestinians have also hijacked Caravaggio’s "The Incredulity of Saint Thomas" (1602), in which Christ is presented carrying a Palestinian ID card, Carracci’s "The Dead Christ Mourned" (1606), in which the original four women in the painting have been replaced by a grief-stricken Palestinian woman surrounded by rubble, and Rembrandt’s 1635 work, "The Sacrifice of Isaac," which has a digitally-inserted Israeli soldier seemingly smothering the child Isaac, in place of Abraham offering his child to God.
"The Palestinian Museum will welcome Pope Francis with visual displays that shed light on the life of our people in the shadow of the occupation" the Palestinian newspaper Al-Hayat Al-Jadida reported on May 20, while the Palestinian Museum proclaimed, “Banners combining recent media photographs of the Palestinian landscape and its people with Western baroque paintings of biblical scenes will decorate Manger Square in Bethlehem, highlighting the tension between the popular image of the Holy Land and Palestine's ongoing history of suffering under occupation and oppression.”
Some critics of the PA have wondered how Muslims would react to faked images of the Prophet Muhammad being used to portray political messages and have long warned of the hijacking of Christian imagery by the Palestinians, a fact, they argue, that should not be lost on the Pope who will have to tread a minefield of religious sensitivities during his brief visit to the land he himself referred to only this week as “that land that has suffered so much.”
“The PA sometimes gets so involved in its own ideology that they forget the effect it has on other people,” Marcus said. “They think that their insistence on presenting Jesus as a Palestinian will be welcomed by the Christian community, but they haven’t apparently considered that this might be something that some Christians might find offensive.”
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist who can be followed on Twitter @paul_alster and at www.paulalster.com.