This afternoon, Pope Francis, the spiritual leader and highest authority in the Catholic world, will land in Israel. The eyes of the entire Christian world will be focused on Jerusalem.
This is surely one of the most important visits that the State of Israel has merited in recent years, not only due to the enormity of the pope’s religious influence, but also because of the great popularity that he enjoys across the entire world.
His face shines, he is humble in character and he respects his fellow man. Pope Francis arrives in Israel as Pilgrim No. 1 in the Catholic world and – of no less importance – as a true friend of the Jewish people.
His visit, despite its brevity, is of great importance to Israel’s image around the world. The pope will come face to face with the real Israel, in all its diversity, as he journeys through the streets of Jerusalem, meets with its people and encounters the strength of true democracy.
Through the prism of the papal visit, watched by billions around the world, Israel will be seen as a country that, since its very establishment, sanctifies religious freedom. A country where equality, liberty and human dignity are enshrined in our values and engraved on our banner. A country that is safe for minorities, especially at a time when minorities, and particularly Christians, are persecuted and oppressed in other countries in the Middle East.
As tourism minister, it was an honor for me to be personally involved in the Tourism Ministry’s preparation for this visit. This included preparing the holy sites that the pope will visit during his time in Israel, as well as improving tourist infrastructure at Rachel’s Crossing to Bethlehem, the Room of the Last Supper on Mount Zion, the Mount of Olives promenade, Via Dolorosa, Ein Kerem and the pilgrimage routes in Jerusalem, as well as the Yardenit baptism site and the Sea of Galilee promenade in the North.
It is worth noting that the State of Israel, via the Tourism Ministry, constantly invests in conserving and preserving historical sites of religious importance to all three monotheistic faiths. In particular, those sites that represent the cradle of the Judeo-Christian civilizations and cultures, where events transpired that served to define the value system of the free world. And, indeed, these sites are open every day of the year to all who wish to visit them, giving full and tangible expression to the values and principles of freedom of religion and worship for all.
The visit of the pope is also an important opportunity to strengthen relations between the State of the Israel and the Church.
As tourism minister, I firmly believe in the ability of tourism to bring people closer together, serving as a bridge between peoples, faiths and cultures, where language is no barrier.
It is indeed a great honor for us to welcome Pope Francis today, here in the State of Israel, the homeland of the Jewish people.
During his visit to Israel 14 years ago, Pope John Paul II said that the land of Israel is holy to all faiths, but is promised only to the Jews.
I hope and believe that this visit will be a new and important step on the bridge to inter-faith understanding. Welcome, Your Holiness Pope Francis.
The author is Israel’s tourism minister.