Pope Francis makes his first trip to the Middle East this month accompanied by Jewish and Muslim intellectuals to push for inter-religious dialogue amid stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
The head of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, who has garnered a reputation as a reformer as well as defender of the downtrodden since his election last year, has referred to his journey as a “pilgrimage of prayer”.
Francis’s trip from Amman to Bethlehem and Jerusalem from May 24 to 26 will aim to reach beyond the walls of Catholicism and mark the 50th anniversary of a historic rapprochement between the Catholic and Orthodox worlds.
In an unprecedented move, Francis will be accompanied throughout by Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Islamic studies professor Omar Abboud — old friends of the Argentine pope from when he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires.
“Every gesture and word will be scrupulously analysed,” Andrea Tornielli, a biographer of the pontiff, wrote on the Italian website Vatican Insider.
“This is precisely why the pilgrimage of a pope who named himself after the saint of peace and has chosen two representatives of the Jewish and Muslim faiths as travel companions, can help renew dialogue,” he said.
Security for the crowd-loving pope will be high after a series of hate crimes against the Catholic Church and Muslims in Israel, and the Vatican hopes the visit will draw attention to the plight of the region’s Christians.
On his first day, Francis will pray on the banks of the River Jordan for the victims of the Syrian conflict and meet some the families among the 600,000 refugees who have sought shelter in Jordan since the war broke out.
He will also meet with King Abdullah II, who has spoken out for Christians and called for their protection in the majority Muslim region, where hardline Islamism has increased in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings.
In Israel, the pope is expected to launch a fresh call for reconciliation with the Palestinians after the collapse this month of the latest efforts to broker peace and the apparent entrenchment of both sides.
He will squeeze diplomatic meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas into his tight schedule, which will see him give 15 speeches during 20 stops around the area.
– Christian ‘exodus’ –
The world’s first Latin American pope will travel to Bethlehem, the site revered as Jesus’s birthplace in the Palestinian Territories, before meeting children from the Aida, Beit Jibrin and Dheisheh refugee camps.
He will visit Jerusalem, claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians as their capital, and any reference he makes to the West Bank wall of separation, Palestinian prisoners or Israeli settlements will be closely watched.
Francis will also stop to pray at the sacred Jewish Wailing Wall, before visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial site on the western slope of Mount Herzl.
He will meet the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem — the Muslim cleric in charge of Jerusalem’s Islamic holy sites — on the Temple Mount, which is considered Islam’s third holiest site but is also revered by Christians and Jews.
In an important step for relations between branches of Christianity, the 77-year-old pope will also meet with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I — a leading figure in the Orthodox world.
This comes half a century after an encounter between Patriarch Athenagoras and Paul VI — the first rapprochement between Catholicism and Orthodoxy since the Great Schism in the 11th century.
Sandro Magister, a Vatican expert from Italy’s L’Espresso weekly, said the climate in the Middle East had completely changed since that meeting in 1964.
“And Christians are the most under pressure. Their exodus from the Middle East is unceasing,” he said.
The leaders of Western and Eastern Christianity are to sign a declaration to overcome their differences in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, venerated as the site where Jesus was buried and resurrected.
But hopes that the meeting could also pave the way to better relations with the Russian Orthodox Church have dimmed due to fallout from the Ukraine crisis, with the Vatican accused by Russia of favouring Kiev over Moscow.
A controversial aspect of the visit has been a plan for the patriarch of the Lebanon-based Maronite church, Beshara Rai, to travel to Israel to meet the pope.
Rai would be the first patriarch to enter Israel since the Jewish state was created in 1948 and there has been fierce condemnation from the Islamist group Hezbollah.
Christians are also unhappy he is not visiting Nazareth, where Jesus is believed to have grown up.
And Israelis have complained that Francis’s biggest mass will be in Bethlehem.
An official at the Vatican, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, said of the visit: “The Vatican has decided to make everyone unhappy so no side tries to score points”.