Pope Francis announced yesterday that he would travel to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan on May 24-26, his first visit to the Holy Land.
Francis told thousands 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 second foreign trip of Francis' pontificate, following his 2013 visit to Brazil.
Francis said the prime aim was 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 in Jerusalem by the current patriarch, Bartholomew. They will celebrate Mass together at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the faithful believe Jesus was crucified and buried.
But the visit will also underscore Francis' close ties to the Jewish community, his outreach to Muslims and the Vatican's long-standing call for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
In his Christmas address, Francis singled out the Holy Land for prayers. "Bless the land where you chose to come into the world, and grant a favourable outcome to the peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians," Francis said on December 25.
Yesterday, 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".
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.
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."