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Pope to Visit Holy Land in May

posted on: Mar 8, 2009

Pope Benedict XVI said Sunday he would visit the Holy Land from May 8-15 in the first papal trip to the area since 2000.

The visit would be the second official trip by a pope to Israel.

Announcing the dates of the long-planned pilgrimage, the pope said he would go to sites Jesus visited and would pray for “the precious gift of unity and peace for the Middle East and all of humanity.”

Benedict told a crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square for the traditional noontime blessing that he was asking the faithful for their spiritual support for the Holy Land pilgrimage and a trip to Africa from March 17-23.

Benedict said the African trip would show “the concrete closeness of myself and of the Church to the Christians and the people of that continent, which is particularly dear to me.”

The pope will stop in Cameroon and Angola, meeting with local bishops, Muslim representatives and women’s rights advocates.

The pope’s Mideast tour will touch Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, with stops in cities including Amman, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth, the Vatican said.

Though a detailed program has not yet been announced, officials in destination countries have said they expect Benedict to visit an Amman mosque, hold public Mass in Jordan and Nazareth and make a stop at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

There has been only one other official visit by a pope to the Jewish state, Pope John Paul II’s pilgrimage in 2000. Pope Paul VI made an unofficial trip there in 1964.

Israeli President Shimon Peres, who invited Benedict to visit, called the trip “an important and thrilling event of the first order, that emanates a wind of peace and hope.”

Benedict’s pilgrimage comes at a time of strained relations between Israel and the Holy See.

Israel was offended when senior Vatican Cardinal Renato Martino said during Israel’s recent military campaign to stop rocket fire from the Gaza Strip that Gaza resembled a “big concentration camp.”

Ties were further rattled when the German-born pope reinstated an excommunicated bishop who has questioned the extent of the Holocaust. Benedict later condemned the bishop’s remarks and spoke out against anti-Semitism.

The two sides are also at odds over the legacy of the wartime pontiff Pius XII, who some historians say did not do everything in his power to prevent the Holocaust.

That dispute centers on a caption of a photo of Pius at Yad Vashem’s museum that says he did not protest the Nazi genocide of Jews and maintained a largely “neutral position.”

The Vatican, which is pushing Pius’ sainthood cause, wants the caption changed and maintains the wartime pontiff made every effort to help Jews and other victims through quiet diplomacy.

Israeli and Vatican historians met Sunday at Yad Vashem for a two-day workshop to discuss research into Pius, signaling a growing willingness to resolve the sensitive issue.

Israel and Jewish groups have encouraged the Vatican to open its wartime archives to allow researchers to look for concrete examples of Pius’ actions.

Yad Vashem director Avner Shalev said he was pleased to learn that Benedict instructed the archive to speed up the process of cataloging the material and hoped it could now be completed in three to four years. The Vatican, which has said the work could take up to six years, had no comment on Sunday.

Vatican-Muslim ties were also tested by a 2006 speech in which Benedict linked Islam to violence. Amid angry reactions from the Muslim world, he expressed regret for any offense caused by his remarks.

Jordan will be the first stop on Benedict’s Mideast tour. Bishop Francis Solikat, the papal nuncio in Amman, said the pope’s visit to the Hussein bin Talal mosque, the largest in the country, will be “another gesture on the part of the Holy Father to promote inter-religious dialogue, especially in Jordan.”

The pope will also stop at the site on the Jordan River where, according to tradition, Jesus was baptized, Solikat said.

Ariel David
The Associated Press