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Pope Francis formally announces May trip dates to Israel, Middle East

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Although for months it was widely speculated that Pope Francis would make a trip to Israel in spring 2014, the Pope himself announced on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2014 that he will make a trip to Israel, Bethlehem, and Amman, Jordan from May 24-26, 2014. The Pope's trip is meant to mark the 50th anniversary Pope Paul VI's own visit to Israel, when he went to Jerusalem in 1964 prior to the Vatican even recognizing Israel as a country.

On Sunday during his weekly Sunday blessing Pope Francis announced his May trip to Israel; "in the climate of joy that is typical of the Christmas season."

Israel's Yediot Aharonot already reported in December 2013 that the Pope would be visiting in May, and they reported that a contingency from the Vatican made an advance trip to scout out the Pope's itinerary. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi stated at the time; "It is in the first instance up to the pope himself to decide upon and to announce such a visit."

Pope Francis will first visit Amman, Jordan on May 24, and then on May 25 he visits Israel meeting with both Israeli leaders Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres. The Pope also plans to meet with religious leaders and sites in Israel, and will visit Bethlehem on May 26, 2014. While in Jerusalem he will hold mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Pope Francis mentioned Israel and the peace talks during his Christmas address saying; "Bless the land where you chose to come into the world, and grant a favourable outcome to the peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians."

Jerusalem's auxiliary bishop Monsignor William Shomali expressed in a Vatican Radio interview after the Pope's trip announcement that; "We are hoping for a new glimmer of light from this visit in relations with the Orthodox, with Muslims and Jews."

The Catholic Church in Israel has stated the trip is not political, but religious and aimed "mainly at spreading and promoting love, cooperation and peace among all inhabitants of the region."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the last Israeli leader to meet with the Pope visiting the Pope in the Vatican in the beginning of December 2013 and being the third Israeli leader to invite the Pope to the country. Israeli President Shimon Peres met the Pope at the end of April 2013 just a month after he was elected and Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein met Pope Francis the both in October, both invited the Holy See to Israel. Also in October 2013 Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met Pope Francis, and also invited him to visit the Palestinian territories.

Israeli Foreign Ministry Yigal Palmor released a statement expressing the country's excitement for the upcoming trip; "He's very welcome in Israel and will be greeted as warmly as his predecessors were."

Pope Francis' two predecessor's also visited Israel during their tenures, Pope Benedict XVI visited in 2009 and Pope John Paul II visited in 2000. His trip will certainly strengthen the bond between the new pontiff, the Jewish community and Israel, sending a positive message worldwide that can only help curb the tide of anti-Semitism. This will be Pope Francis's second trip to Israel; he previously went to Israel in 1973, prior to the Six-Day War.

Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes JBuzz & Together with Israel. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are Northern American Jewish news, Israeli news & politics, and Jewish history, religion and cultural news.

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