Pope’s trip to Jerusalem to stumble on diplomatic pitfalls

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When Pope Francis sets foot in the Holy Land at the end of the month, he’ll be facing  a range of diplomatic dilemmas. Israeli-Palestinian politics are just one of the many sensitive issues Vatican officials are worried about. Other sore points are incidents of anti-Christian vandalism, lingering tensions between the Holy See and the Jewish community, historic disputes with rival Christian denominations.

Francis’ visit on the 50th anniversary of that historic embrace aims to further relations between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, Vatican officials say.

“This is the Holy Land. It’s complicated,” said Hana Bendcowsky of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, an interfaith group.

Every stop on Francis’ itinerary carries symbolic weight and tiptoes around political sensitivities.

The pope will first spend half a day in Jordan on May 24, visiting the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan River, before arriving in the West Bank to meet Palestinian leaders and celebrate Mass in Bethlehem, near the traditional site of Jesus’ birth.

Instead of a quick 10-minute drive from Bethlehem to neighboring Jerusalem, the pope will have a helicopter flight for 28 miles (45 kilometers) to an official welcoming ceremony at Israel’s international Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. He then flies back to Jerusalem to meet Israeli leaders and visit holy sites and Israel’s Holocaust memorial.

The geographical “zigzag” takes into account Jerusalem’s contraversial status.

In Bethlehem, the Argentine pontiff will visit the Deheishe refugee camp, home to Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes in the 1948 war surrounding the establishment of Israel. Palestinian officials are eager for Francis to see the impoverished camp and hear Palestinian grievances against Israel.

“The pope will see the reality,” said Xavier Abu Eid, a Palestinian official helping coordinate the papal visit.

Also, the pontiff will meet with the top Muslim cleric in Jerusalem, the grand mufti, at the Holy Land’s most politically sensitive religious site — the Old City compound revered by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and by Jews as the Temple Mount. The site witnesses frequent clashes between Israeli police and Muslim worshippers.

Only three other popes ever visited the Holy Land.

Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, will meet in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which marks the traditional site of Jesus’ burial.

Representatives of other churches will also be present.

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