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Pope Francis announced that he is to travel to the Holy Land from 24-26 May, ending weeks of speculation.
During his three-day visit he will visit the Jordanian capital, Amman, before going to Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
He described the trip as a “pilgrimage of prayer” which would have important ecumenical overtones.
“The main purpose is to commemorate the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and [Ecumenical] Patriarch Athenagoras, which took place on 5 January, as today, exactly 50 years ago,” the Pope told tens of thousands of people gathered in St Peter’s Square for the Angelus on Sunday.
The Pope also announced an Ecumenical Meeting with all the representatives of the Christian Churches of Jerusalem together with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, which will be held at the city’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Rabbi Abraham Skorka of Buenos Aries, a close friend of the Pope's who co-authored a book with him and last September stayed with him in the Vatican, is also expected to be part of the papal visit.
Then, in what appeared to an answer to Israeli criticism that his visit to Bethlehem would give political advantage to the Palestinian leaders, he added in unscripted comments that he Holy Land trip “it will be a pilgrimage of prayer”.
Vatican planners are still working out the exact details of the visit with local officials in Jordan, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). Pope Francis is expected to celebrate Masses in Amman and Bethlehem, but apparently not in Jerusalem, where the ecumenical gathering will be a service of the word.
He is also expected to meet political and civic leaders in the countries he visits, go to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem and possibly meet Syrian refugees who have fled to Amman.
Pope Benedict XVI visited Jordan, Israel and the OPT in May 2009. But he did not visit Yad Vashem on account of a caption in the museum that accused the wartime Pope Pius XII for not having done enough to save Europe’s Jews. In July 2012 the museum replaced the caption with a more softly worded version.
Top: Pope Francis visiting an acted-out nativity scene at a church in Rome yesterday, and above in April meeting Israeli President Shimon Peres, who told him: "I am expecting you in Jerusalem and not just me, but all the people of Israel." Photos: CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters and CNS/Ettore Ferrari, via Reuters