Pope Francis on Sunday announced long-awaited plans to travel to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan in the spring.
The visit, scheduled for May 24-26, will be his 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.
Francis’s trip will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and Orthodox Christian spiritual leader Ecumenical Patriarch Atengora, in Jerusalem. Current patriarch Bartholomew I will join Pope Francis in Jerusalem in late May, where they will celebrate Mass together at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where most Christians believe Jesus was crucified and buried.
In Jerusalem, Israeli Foreign Ministry Yigal Palmor said Israel was excited by the visit. “He’s very welcome in Israel and will be greeted as warmly as his predecessors were,” he said.
On Sunday, the Palestinian news agency Wafa said President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed the visit and said he hoped it would “contribute to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinian people who aspire for freedom, justice and independence.”
Jordan’s Royal Palace said the Amman leg of Francis’ visit — on May 24 — would mark a “significant milestone for brotherhood and forgiveness between Muslims and Christians and consolidates the message of peace.”
Despite the geopolitical backdrop of the trip, the Catholic Church in the Holy Land insisted that the visit was aimed “mainly at spreading and promoting love, cooperation and peace among all inhabitants of the region.”
The trip will mark the new pope’s second visit to the Holy Land. He arrived in Israel in 1973, just as the Yom Kippur War broke out. As The Times of Israel revealed in April, the young Jorge Mario Bergoglio spent six days confined by the conflict to his Jerusalem hotel, where he studied the Letters of Saint Paul to the Corinthians.
President Shimon Peres first invited Francis to Israel immediately after his election as pope, calling on him to visit as a spiritual — not a political — leader. “The sooner you visit, the better; in these days, a new opportunity is being created for peace and your arrival could contribute significantly to increasing the trust and belief in peace,” Peres told the pope at the time.
Last October, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud) met Pope Francis in the Vatican and invited him to visit Israel and the Knesset.
Francis reportedly replied emphatically to Edelstein, “I’ll come! I’ll come!”
Both of the pontiff’s immediate predecessors visited Israel — Benedict XVI in 2009 and John Paul II in 2000.