Pope Francis arrives in the Middle East on Saturday with a prayer of peace for a parched region.
“He will bring a message of peace, which all Israelis hope for,” Israel’s Ambassador to the Vatican Zion Evrony said. “The visit is of historic importance. It is another milestone, between Israel and the Holy See and the Jewish people and the country and the church.”
The pontiff will land first in Jordan. He will then fly by helicopter to Jesus’s birthplace, the city of Bethlehem, on Sunday morning, before arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport in the afternoon, where he will receive a formal welcome.
By the time he leaves on Monday evening, he will have placed a note in the Western Wall in Jerusalem, visited the Temple Mount and spoken with the grand mufti of Jerusalem and Israel’s chief rabbis.
In his attempts to honor both Israelis and Palestinians, Judaism and Islam, he will be executing a complicated diplomatic dance in which meaning is attached to his every logistical move. To emphasize the pluralistic nature of his visit, he will have two religious leaders from his native Argentina accompanying him: Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Imam Omar Abboud.
The pope will both visit with Palestinian refugees and lay a wreath on the grave of Theodor Herzl.
He is the fourth pontiff in the state’s history to visit, but he is the first to pay homage to the father of modern Zionism.
While the gesture is part of a new state protocol, Israel views the pontiff’s agreement to visit the grave as tremendously symbolic of its growing ties to the Vatican.
Ambassador Oded Ben-Hur, a diplomatic adviser to the Knesset and a former Israeli ambassador to the Vatican, said that Francis’s visit to Herzl’s tomb would “close a historical circle of 100 years.”
On January 26, 1904, Herzl had an audience with Pope Pius X to seek support for the Zionist movement, but the pontiff did not look favorably on the idea, stating that “the Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people.”
“Pope Francis is closing this unfinished affair and is, I think, sending a message of support for the return of Jews to Zion by visiting Herzl’s grave, and this is an extremely important gesture,” said Ben- Hur. “He knows very well what he is agreeing to by laying a wreath there.”
Evrony recalled the first papal visit to Israel – that of Pope Paul VI in 1964 – which lasted only 11 hours.
“It did not include any official element of political significance, with the exception of two brief meetings with president [Zalman] Shazar upon his arrival and departure,” Evrony recalled. “In that visit, Pope Paul VI did not mention Israel, and when he returned to Rome, he sent a thank you telegram address to president Shazar, Tel Aviv, mentioning neither Israel nor Jerusalem.”
Ben-Hur said Francis’s formal visit to President Shimon Peres at the President’s Residence was another symbolic sign of the acceptance of Jewish sovereignty in the State of Israel.
Ben-Hur acknowledged that Israeli diplomatic officials were “not happy” with the pope’s visit to the Temple Mount and his visit with Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Muhammad Ahmad Hussein at the site.
“We expressed our displeasure, but he is a guest here, and we understand his considerations and constraints. As long as he gives respect to Israeli sovereignty [in general], then we are satisfied,” he said.
The ambassador also noted that the Vatican formally described Francis’s meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as a visit to the “president of the State of Palestine,” reflecting the Vatican’s acceptance of the November 2012 vote in the UN General Assembly to recognize Palestine as a non-member observer state.
The government did not view this favorably, either, Ben-Hur said.
Regarding the recent spate of vandalism against Christian sites and holy places, he said the Vatican was confident in Israel’s ability to secure the pope and his entourage, and to deal with the perpetrators of the attacks.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said last week that the Vatican was not “overly concerned” by the incidents.
The PA ambassador to the Vatican, Khuloud Daibes, met with Francis on Wednesday and told him that Palestinian Muslims and Christians were looking forward to receiving him during his visit to Bethlehem and Jerusalem next week.
Daibes pointed out that the pope’s visit was significant because it affirmed support of the rights of the Palestinians and “lays the foundations for solidifying the spirit of peace and harmony in Palestine and the whole world.”
The PA is hoping to use the papal visit to highlight the “suffering” of Palestinians in the West Bank in general and Bethlehem in particular.
Francis is scheduled to pay a short visit to the Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem, where he will meet with Palestinian children. The meeting will take place at the camp’s Phoenix Center, a community hall that hosts workshops and a computer center.
He is also expected to have lunch with Palestinian families in Bethlehem in order to “pray together for the success of His Holiness’s visit for justice and peace,” according to a PLO spokesman.
On Friday, Palestinian families in Beit Jala will celebrate their weekly open-air mass, where they pray “in order to prevent Israeli plans to build the annexation wall in the area,” the spokesman said. “The construction of the wall in this place would result in Beit Jala losing its green space, as well as a kindergarten, winery and the land of 58 Palestinian families.”
On the eve of the visit, the PA has organized tours and briefings for journalists to explain the preparations under way to receive Francis.
The PA has also released a series of videos showing the daily reality of the Palestinians, called The Living Stones: Messages from Palestine. One video brings messages from Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to Francis. It is titled Don’t Forget Palestine.
The Palestinian Museum has been chosen to provide the visuals in honor of Francis’s visit. It has created banners to decorate Manger Square and Dheisheh camp, welcoming the pope with a series of images designed to be thought-provoking as well as simply celebratory, according to a statement by the museum.
The banners combine recent media photographs of the Palestinian landscape and its people with Western baroque paintings of biblical scenes.
“The paintings interpret episodes from the life of Christ as a means of glorifying God and spreading His teachings, but the photographs glorify nothing: They simply bear witness to mundane episodes in the often difficult lives of Palestinians today,” the statement said. “Juxtaposed, the images explore the tensions between popular images of the Holy Land, the birthplace of Christ and the backdrop to biblical miracles and stories, and ones of Palestine today, which is home to a dwindling Christian population and has an ongoing history of suffering caused by occupation and oppression.”