VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis will travel to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan in May, his first visit to the Holy Land and one that comes amid a new U.S. push for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Francis told thousands gathered in the rain for his weekly Sunday blessing that "in the climate of joy that is typical of the Christmas season," he was announcing a visit May 24-26 to Amman, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. It is the only papal trip confirmed so far for 2014 and the second foreign trip of Francis' pontificate, following his 2013 visit to Brazil for World Youth Day.
Francis said his 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. Catholics and Orthodox have been divided since the Great Schism of 1054, precipitated largely by disagreements over the primacy of the pope.
Francis will be joined in Jerusalem by the current ecumenical patriarch, Bartholomew. They will celebrate Mass together at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the faithful believe Jesus was crucified and buried, Francis said.
But the visit also underscores Francis' close ties to the Jewish community, his outreach to Muslims and the Vatican's longstanding call for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The announcement was made just as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up three days of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in a new U.S. bid for peace.
In his Christmas address, Francis singled out the Holy Land for prayers, saying "Bless the land where you chose to come into the world, and grant a favorable outcome to the peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians."
On Sunday, 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."
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 and consolidates the message of peace."
Despite the geopolitical backdrop of the trip, the Catholic Church in the Holy Land insisted that the visit was aimed "mainly at spreading and promoting love, cooperation and peace among all inhabitants."
Francis, an Argentine Jesuit who made forging relations with Jews and Muslims a priority of his tenure as archbishop of Buenos Aires, will be the fourth pope to visit the Holy Land after Paul VI's landmark visit in 1964.
After decades of reluctance by the Vatican to recognize the Jewish state, the Polish-born John Paul II forged formal relations in 1993, following it up with an official visit to Israel in 2000 that included stops at the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem and at the Western Wall, where he famously left a handwritten plea asking forgiveness for Christian persecution.
The German-born Pope Benedict XVI followed up nine years later with his own visit.
Francis' full itinerary hasn't been released, but the pope's good friend, Rabbi Abraham Skorka, has said he hopes the pope will stop at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray in Jerusalem. In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Skorka said he also hoped to pray with Francis in Bethlehem "to show the world it is possible."