Pope Benedict 248.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Pope Benedict XVI will visit Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories between May 8 and 15, the leader of the Catholic church confirmed during Sunday's mass at St. Peter's in the Vatican.
President Shimon Peres, speaking at a memorial ceremony in the North, hailed the visit as a mission of peace.
"I am delighted that His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI has responded positively and accepted my invitation to visit the Holy Land. The Pope will be a most honored guest, welcomed and respected by people from all walks of life. His visit will be a moving and important event bringing the spirit of peace and hope. Welcome to Israel," said Peres.
In his Sunday mass, Pope Benedict said, "From May 8th-15th, I will make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to ask the Lord, visiting the places sanctified by his passage on the earth, for his precious blessing of unity and peace for the Middle East and for all of mankind. I am counting on the spiritual support of all of you, and may God accompany me, support me and bless with his Grace all those who I meet on my way."
President Peres has instructed the director-general of the President's Office, Efrat Duvdevani, to accelerate the preparations for the Pope's visit with all of the relevant government ministries.
Those ministries, together with the police, the IDF and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) are gearing up for the visit and have drawn up a wide-ranging plan to prepare for the occasion, which is expected to cost the state NIS 43 million.
Benedict's visit could improve relations between the Vatican and the Jewish people, which have recently become strained after he faced harsh reactions from Jewish groups and the German government for his decision to reverse the excommunication of Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson.
The less-than-ideal state of relations has not deterred the Israeli government from classifying the visit as "high priority" and allocating large amounts of resources for it.
Peres will act as Benedict's "national host," while Minister-Without-Portfolio Haim Ramon has been appointed to oversee government preparations.
In a draft plan of action, Police Commissioner Insp.-Gen. David Cohen will be appointed head of operations for the pope's stay. A special command and control center will be set up by police.
Israel Police Operations Branch spokeswoman Orit Friedman said recently that police planners had already begun their preparations.
"This is a very important visit for Israel, one that is tied to the state's image, its diplomatic front and tourism [industry]," Friedman told The Jerusalem Post.
"Major planning is underway at the Israel Police's national headquarters. It includes field plans for the areas the pope will visit, and briefings for commanders on the ground. There's lots of work to do, and we've already started."
The pope is expected to tour sites in Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount, as well as the Center and North. Large numbers of police will be assigned to secure these areas. He will also visit sites in the Palestinian Authority.
The Defense Ministry and the IDF will oversee security at Ben-Gurion International Airport during Benedict's arrival and departure, while the Shin Bet, which is carrying out pre-visit fieldwork, will have final say on all aspects of security.
The Prime Minister's Office will be the highest governmental authority for the visit and will be responsible for all media communications.
The Foreign Ministry will coordinate the pope's schedule with Vatican officials and set up a national media center.
The Chief Rabbinate has been asked to "deal with all religious issues that emanate from a visit by such a senior Christian figure."