VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis insists his weekend pilgrimage to the Middle East is a "strictly religious" commemoration of a key turning point in Catholic-Orthodox relations. But the three-day mission is the most delicate of his papacy and will test his diplomatic skills as he negotiates Israeli-Palestinian tensions and fallout from Syria's civil war.
For a pope who embraces spontaneity and shuns papal protocol and security, the potential pitfalls are obvious. Not to mention the fact that Francis' stated purpose for traveling to Jordan, Israel and the West Bank has little to do with the geopolitical headlines of the day.
Francis has said his pilgrimage is designed to mark the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, Patriarch Athenagoras.
Their iconic 1964 embrace — with the diminutive Paul almost dwarfed by the bearded, 6-foot, 4-inch (1.9-meter) Patriarch of Constantinople — ended 900 years of mutual excommunications and divisions between Catholic and Orthodox stemming from the Great Schism of 1054, which split Christianity. It was the first meeting of a pope and ecumenical patriarch since 1437, when Patriarch Joseph II was forced to kiss the feet of Pope Eugene IV in a sign of subservience.
"This meeting just opened the way ... for reconciliation," the Greek-Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, told The Associated Press in a recent interview in his offices in Jerusalem's Old City.
The highlight of the trip that begins Saturday will be a prayer service led by Francis and Athengoras' successor, Bartholomew I, inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where the faithful believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected. The service itself will be historic given that the three main Christian communities that share the church — Greek-Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic — will pray together at the same time.
Prayer services at the ancient church are usually separate, with each Catholic and Orthodox community jealously guarding its turf, scheduling individual services and getting into occasional fistfights over infractions — stark evidence of the divisions that remain five decades after Paul VI and Athenagoras made a first step toward Christian unity. And tellingly, no representative of the Russian Orthodox Church is expected to attend.
Nevertheless, the Vatican is touting the service as an important step in the tortured millennium of Catholic-Orthodox division that began to be healed in 1964.
During his weekly general audience, Francis asked for prayers. "It will be a strictly religious trip," he said, adding that he also wanted to "pray for peace in the land that has suffered so much."
While ecumenical relations are getting the place of honor on this trip, interfaith relations with Muslim and Jews are getting relatively little attention. Unlike the 2000 visit to the Holy Land by St. John Paul II and the 2009 visit by Pope Benedict XVI, no interfaith gathering of Israel's chief rabbis and the grand mufti of Jerusalem, who is in charge of Jerusalem's Islamic holy places, is planned.
Francis will meet with the Jewish and Muslim leaders separately, and he is bringing along two old friends from Argentina as part of his papal delegation, Rabbi Abraham Skorka and a leader of Argentina's Islamic community, Omar Abboud. But the absence of a joint encounter with the local leaders of the three main religions of the Holy Land has drawn some criticism that Francis is losing an opportunity to promote interfaith dialogue, even while ensuring that such an encounter isn't exploited by participants, as occurred in the past.
"If he comes to the Holy Land and doesn't take an initiative for the sake of peace, that's a disappointment," said Rabbi David Rosen, the head of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee and a veteran of Catholic-Jewish dialogue.
Skorka told reporters this week that his presence on the delegation and friendship with the pope showed that interfaith dialogue was possible and that "it is possible to bring Rome and Jerusalem closer together."
Israeli Christians are also getting something of a short shrift since Francis isn't celebrating a public Mass in Israel, as both John Paul and Benedict did. His only public Mass is in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, where he will also visit children at a Palestinian refugee camp.
"The pope will have a unique opportunity to have a look from a close distance at the political situation and the human difficulties that our people live in: the siege, the checkpoints, the wall," said Hanna Amereh, head of the Palestinian official committee to receive the pope.
Perhaps in an olive branch to Israel, Francis will lay a wreath on Mount Herzl, Israel's national cemetery that is named for the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl. He'll also meet with the Israeli prime minister and president, as well as the Jordanian and Palestinian leaders.
Francis will follow in his predecessors' footsteps by praying at the Western Wall and paying respects at the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem. And on the first day of his trip in Jordan, he'll meet with Syrian refugees to highlight his concern for the plight of Christian refugees fleeing war, poverty and discrimination in the region.
As he did on his first foreign trip to Brazil, Francis is shunning the bullet-proof popemobile his predecessors used overseas in favor of an open-topped car so he can better greet well-wishers.
Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said officials had few concerns about security and the faithful mobbing the pope since "it's not like we're going to a country where Catholics are a majority and great crowds are expected."
But it's not entirely worry free: Israel's national police issued restraining orders against several Jewish extremists this week for allegedly planning to disrupt the visit. In recent weeks, vandals have scribbled anti-Arab and anti-Christian graffiti on Christian holy sites and properties in the region.
Associated Press writers Daniela Berretta in Jerusalem and Mohammed Daragmeh in Ramallah , West Bank, contributed to this report.
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