Pope Francis is to arrive in Jordan tomorrow for the first leg of a three-day visit to the Holy Land that will be steeped in politics despite his claim in Rome this week that he is hoping for “purely a religious trip”.
On Sunday, Francis will become the first, of the four popes who have visited the region, to enter the Palestinian Territories without coming through Israel.
Instead, in what is an unmistakable gesture, he will fly by helicopter directly to Bethlehem from the Jordanian capital, Amman, before flying out to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport for the official Israeli welcoming ceremony. From there he will head to the divided city of Jerusalem, which is only seven miles from Bethlehem.
In Bethlehem today Palestinian officials were predicting that the Pope will refer to Palestine as a state – as recognised by the UN, but not Israel or the US – during his time in the West Bank city on Sunday, when he will meet with children from nearby refugee camps.
Francis in the Holy Land, 24-26 May
Courtesy visit to King and Queen of Jordan
Mass at International Stadium, Amman
Visits reputed site of Christ’s baptism at Bethany beyond the Jordan
Meets refugees and disabled young people at Bethany
Sunday: Bethlehem and Jerusalem
Meets with the Palestinian Authority
Mass in Manger Square
Lunch with Palestinian families
Private visit to Grotto of the Nativity
Greets children from three refugee camps at Deheisheh Refugee Camp
Private meeting with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in Jerusalem and signing of joint declaration
Ecumenical meeting to mark the 50th anniversary of the meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre.
Dinner with Patriarchs and bishops and the Papal suite at Latin Patriarchate
Visit to the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem
Visit to the Western Wall
Laying of wreath at Mount Herzl followed by visit to the Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem
Courtesy visit to Israel’s two Chief Rabbis
Courtesy visit to Israel’s President Shimon Peres
Private audience with Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu
Private visit to the Ecumenical Patriarch
Meeting with priests, Religious and seminarians at the Church of Gethsemane
Mass in the room of the Cenacle with bishops of the Holy Land and Papal Suite
Francis is expected to express solidarity with Palestinian Christians who have chosen to remain in the birthplace of Jesus amid an exodus that has seen the city’s Christian population fall from 60 per cent to 15 per cent since 1990, in the face of Muslim hostility and the Israeli security barrier which increasingly surrounds the city, limiting trade and freedom of movement.
Manger Square has been adorned with posters depicting the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Pope Francis and the words “State of Palestine”. The Pope has chosen to celebrate Mass in Manger Square instead of doing so in Galilee in Israel as his predecessors have done.
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem too, Francis will make bold gestures. He has decided not to visit the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israeli west Jerusalem and instead receive him at the Vatican-owned Catholic Notre Dame centre.
The Vatican is stressing the interfaith nature of the trip, with Pope Francis accompanied by his friends Rabbi Abraham Skorka, the former rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires, and Sheikh Omar Abboud, a former secretary-general of the Islamic Center of Argentina.
And of the dozens of papal meetings and homilies during the weekend, easily the most symbolic in Christian terms will be Sunday evening’s prayer service at the church believed to be the site of the Crucifixion, burial and Resurrection of Jesus.
This is when Francis prays with the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, the Orthodox “first among equals” at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. They are to pray the Lord’s Prayer together in a moment of Christian unity rarely seen at a church which is the scene of regular inter-denominational fights between the predominant communions – Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox.
The encounter between the two men, one of four during the visit, will echo the meeting in 1964 between Paul Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople, but will be the first time that the men Catholics and Orthodox regard as the successors to the brothers Peter and Andrew will pray publicly together. The fiftieth anniversary meeting underlines the official theme of the trip: "so that they may be one".
However, in west Jerusalem today, where officials have lined the streets with Israeli and Holy See flags, the speculation is on how far this unpredictable Pope will go to give a show of support to the Palestinian cause.
Patriarch Fouad Twal, Jerusalem’s Catholic leader, has pointed out that Pope Francis specialises in symbolism, and nowhere are gestures more dissected than in this troubled city. “You need to look at the gestures, not just at the words,” he said. “We cannot have a visit of His Holiness without a political dimension.”
A Vatican source said that this Pope’s heart is with the Palestinians, but “he knows the balance he has to strike” and is keen not to put a foot wrong during his packed itinerary. This view was backed by Rabbi Skorka, who told a press conference in Jerusalem on Wednesday: “He will try to balance. This is going to be his policy in his speeches and in his acts. Total balance, this is what he is.”
On Monday Pope Francis will visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, where organisers, along with Israeli officials, are hoping for some powerful words in support of the Jewish homeland. He will also lay a wreath on the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, in a move that has angered some Palestinians.
Nonetheless, the only signs of trouble in advance of the trip have come from Jewish nationalist and Orthodox extremists protesting at the Pope’s visit to the Cenacle, reputedly the Upper Room of the Last Supper, which is adjacent to the tomb of King David.
Police this week issued restraining orders on several of the extremists, barring them from entering Jerusalem’s Old City during the Pope’s visits, during which he will not be using the armoured car offered to him by the Israeli authorities.
There were no signs of protests at the Cenacle today, and the Holy Sepulchre was unusually quiet as it was cleaned in preparation for Sunday.
Many here are praying “for the peace of Jerusalem”. Some say that if anyone can help, it is Pope Francis. But even he cannot wave a magic wand over a city, the eternally tragic nature of which is perhaps best captivated in the Talmud, the text on Jewish law written in the second century BC.
“Ten measures of beauty gave God to the world: nine to Jerusalem and one to the remainder,” it says, before adding prophetically: “Ten measures of sorrow gave God to the world: nine to Jerusalem and one to the remainder.”