Pope Francis announced today that he would travel to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan on May 24-26, his first visit to the Holy Land.
The planned visit comes amid a new US push for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Francis told people gathered in the rain for his weekly Sunday blessing that he was announcing, “in the climate of joy that is typical of the Christmas season,” the three-day visit to Amman, Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
It is the only trip so far confirmed for 2014 and the second foreign trip of Francis’ pontificate, following his 2013 visit to Brazil for World Youth Day.
Francis said the prime aim is 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.
Francis will be joined by the current ecumenical patriarch, Bartholomew. They will celebrate Mass together at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the faithful believe Jesus was crucified and buried, Francis said.
But the visit will also underscore Francis’ close ties to the Jewish community and the Vatican’s long-standing 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 a new US bid for peace.
In his Christmas address last month, 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.”
The Argentine Jesuit will be the fourth pope to visit the Holy Land: Paul visited in 1964, John Paul II in 2000, and Benedict XVI in 2009.