ROME (EJP)—Pope Francis will travel to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan in May.
The visit, scheduled for May 24-26, will be the pontiff’s first trip to the Holy Land since taking office, though he has visited before, and the only foreign trip announced so far for 2014.
Addressing a Vatican crowd gathered in the rain for his weekly Sunday blessing, Francis said he would be visiting Bethlehem and Jerusalem. He would also travel to Amman. The full itinerary hasn’t been released but the pope is likely to visit the Western Wall, the holiest site for the Jews.
Francis said the prime aim of this trip was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and the then-spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Atengora. Catholics and Orthodox have been divided since the Great Schism of 1054, precipitated largely by disagreements over the primacy of the pope.
The visit underscores Francis’ close ties to the Jewish community, his outreach to Muslims and the Vatican’s longstanding call for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
The announcement was made just as US Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up three days of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
In his Christmas address, Francis singled out the Holy Land for prayers, saying “Bless the land where you chose to come into the world, and grant a favourable outcome to the peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Francis, an Argentine Jesuit who made forging relations with Jews and Muslims a priority of his tenure as archbishop of Buenos Aires, will be the fourth pope to visit the Holy Land after Paul VI’s landmark visit in 1964.
After decades of reluctance by the Vatican to recognize the Jewish state, the Polish-born John Paul II forged formal relations in 1993, following it up with an official visit to Israel in 2000 that included stops at the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem and at the Western Wall, where he famously left a handwritten plea asking forgiveness for Christian persecution.
The German-born Pope Benedict XVI followed up nine years later with his own visit.