Pope to visit Palestinian refugee camp, Western Wall

Pope to visit Palestinian refugee camp, Western Wall

Papal trip to feature key Israeli, Palestinian religious and national sites, including Al-Aqsa compound, Yad Vashem

Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives for his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, on May 14, 2014. (photo credit: AFP Photo/Tiziana Fabi)
Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives for his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, on May 14, 2014. (photo credit: AFP Photo/Tiziana Fabi)

Pope Francis will visit seven sites on his two-day trip to the Holy Land.

• Bethany, Jordan — Referred to in the Bible as “Bethany beyond the Jordan,” this site on the eastern bank of the River Jordan is where some Christians believe Jesus was baptized by John at the start of his ministry. At a site called Wadi al-Kharrar, pope John Paul II held a ceremony when he visited in 2000, which the Jordanians took as a confirmation that this was the original baptismal site.

• Basilica of the Nativity, Bethlehem — Located in the southern West Bank town of Bethlehem, the Church of the Nativity is built over the site where Christians believe Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable.

The fourth-century basilica, which was built by the Roman emperor Constantine, attracts more than a million pilgrims every year, making it the biggest tourist attraction in the Palestinian territories.

A tour of damage inflicted on the church during a 39-day standoff between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants in 2002, is routinely offered to visitors and dignitaries alike.

• Dheisheh refugee camp, Bethlehem — Set up in 1949 on land leased from Jordan, Dheisheh camp initially housed refugees who fled or were forced out of 45 villages around Jerusalem and the southern West Bank city of Hebron.

Today, it counts some 14,800 inhabitants, making it the fifth-largest of the 19 refugee camps in the West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem.

The late pope John Paul II also visited the camp on a tour of the Holy Land in 2000, calling for an urgent solution to the plight of the millions made homeless after the creation of the Jewish state in 1948.

• Church of the Holy Sepulchre — An ancient sprawling shrine in the heart of Jerusalem’s walled Old City that Christian tradition says was built on the site of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus.

Considered one of the holiest sites in Christendom, it is uneasily shared by six denominations — the Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Egyptian Copts, Syrian Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox.

Eastern Christians refer to the site as the Church of the Resurrection.

• Al-Aqsa compound and the Western Wall — A vast plaza at the southeastern edge of the Old City is known to Jews as the Temple Mount, and to Muslims as the Al-Aqsa compound. As the site where the first and second Jewish Temples once stood, it is revered as the holiest spot in Judaism.

Today, the plaza houses the golden Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosques and is the third-holiest site in Islam. Although Jews can visit, they are forbidden by law to pray there.

Directly below one side of the plaza is the Western Wall, a remnant of the retaining wall that supported the second temple and is the holiest site at which Jews are permitted to pray.

• Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum — Set up in 1953, Yad Vashem on the southwestern outskirts of Jerusalem, is a living memorial to the six million Jews massacred in the Nazi genocide.

Its mission is to remember the Holocaust through commemoration, documentation, research and education, and a trip there is a permanent fixture on the schedule of every visiting dignitary and official.

A key exhibit is the Hall of Names, which holds short biographies of each of the victims, along with photographs that line the inside of a 10-metre (33-foot) high dome.

• Garden of Gethsemane — Located at the foot of the Mount of Olives, just east of the Old City, Gethsemane is the biblical site where Jesus went to pray after the Last Supper, and where he was arrested before being crucified.

Today, it is a tiny garden in the grounds of the Church of All Nations that is populated with ancient gnarled olive trees, some of which are believed to be more than 1,000 years old. The name Gethsemane comes from the Aramaic for “olive press.”

• The Cenacle — The Cenacle, or Upper Room, is located on the second floor of a two-storey building on Mount Zion just outside the Old City, that is holy to Christians, Jews and Muslims.

For Christians, it is the place where Jesus ate the Last Supper with his disciples before he was crucified. It is also the place where his followers were baptized by the Holy Spirit during the Feast of Weeks, known to Christians as Pentecost. Under Israeli law, Christians are only permitted to pray there twice a year.

On the ground floor is a site that has been revered by Jews since the 12th century as the tomb of the biblical King David, although the site has never been excavated and the contents of the sarcophagus are unknown. Negotiations between Israel and the Vatican for greater Christian access to the Upper Room has sparked angry protests from nationalist Jewish groups.

The site also housed a mosque during the Ottoman empire and is revered by Muslims as the location of David’s tomb.

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