Seagulls fly past pope Francis as he arrives for the Angelus noon prayer he celebrates from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Sunday. Pope Francis announced Sunday that he would travel to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan on May 24-26, his first visit to the Holy Land. (Alessandra Tarantino / AP)
Vatican City — Pope Francis says his upcoming trip to the Holy Land aims to boost relations with Orthodox Christians. But the three-day visit in May 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 Sunday 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.
Francis told thousands gathered in the rain for his weekly Sunday blessing that he would visit Amman, Bethlehem and Jerusalem on May 24-26. 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, an Argentine Jesuit, will be the fourth pope to visit the Holy Land after Paul VI’s landmark visit in 1964.
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.”
As archbishop of Buenos Aires, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio — now Pope Francis — made interreligious dialogue a top priority, hosting an annual interfaith ceremony in the Argentine capital’s cathedral to promote religious harmony and writing a book on faith with his good friend, Rabbi Abraham Skorka.
“We are hoping for a new glimmer of light from this visit in relations with the Orthodox, with Muslims and Jews,” Monsignor William Shomali, auxiliary bishop in Jerusalem, told Vatican Radio on Sunday.
All three governments welcomed the papal visit. The Palestinian news agency Wafa said President Mahmoud Abbas hoped it would “contribute to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinian people who aspire for freedom, justice and independence.”
In Jerusalem, Israeli Foreign Ministry Yigal Palmor said Francis was “will be greeted as warmly as his predecessors were.”