April 30, 2009, Updated September 13, 2012

Pope Benedict XVI is to visit Israel in May to ask for a blessing of unity and peace for the Middle East. He traveled Israel extensively getting to know the Holy Land “deeply” while he was in seminary school, but this time around will be Pope Benedict XVI’s first official visit as the Catholic Pope.

Due to arrive in May and to stay for five days in Israel, the Pope was invited by Israel’s President Shimon Peres, and accepted the offer. “He’s coming because he was invited by the President of Israel,” says Pini Shani, a marketing head from Israel’s Tourism Ministry, who believes the visit will strengthen the Pope’s connection with the Jewish people.

Experts also suggest that the visit is designed to bring to an end any lingering tension between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people over a recent Catholic initiative to canonize Pope Pius XII, who many Jews accuse of remaining silent during the Holocaust.

“From 8-15 May, 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,” said the Pope in an official statement.

The Pope’s impending visit, the third Papal visit since Israel was founded, has been greeted with enthusiasm by local religious leaders, who see it as an opportunity to improve inter-religious relationships.

“For us the Holy Father is coming to pray with us and for us,” says Wadie Abu Nassar, an Israeli Christian Palestinian, a media coordinator for the trip, and the spokesman for the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem. “It is a force of encouragement and we are gladly welcoming him. We hope this visit will promote better inter-religious relations between all nations,” he tells ISRAEL21c.

Trip to create lasting impact and ties

“The Pope’s visit to the Holy Land inspires an atmosphere of understanding, reconciliation and peace between peoples and religions,” said Israel’s Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov. “His visit will encourage thousands of pilgrims around the world to follow in his footsteps.”

Israeli President Peres said he believes the visit will be “a moving and important event bringing the spirit of peace and hope.”

The Tourism Ministry is preparing for a surge in Christian pilgrims with a dedicated website for the visit. Pilgrims are invited to follow the Pope on his journey either online or in person.

The website will be supported by a web 2.0 campaign targeted at people living in the USA, Italy, Spain, Germany, France, Poland and Brazil. Updated regularly, the site includes information on the Pope’s itinerary, information on the holy Christian sites throughout Israel, pilgrimage routes, and information on tour operators.

Although 81-year-old Benedict did not call on other Catholic pilgrims to join him on this journey, as Pope John Paul II did when he came to Israel in 2000, Shani sees this trip as one that will impact the relationship between the Vatican and Israel in the long run.

“We want to use the visit to show the Catholic community that Israel has a lot to offer them, that they can come and visit, and that they are welcome to visit,” Shani tells ISRAEl21c.

The Pope’s Middle East pilgrimage will include a visit to Jordan, followed on May 11-15 by the visit to Israel and the holy sites in Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem in the Palestinian Authority. During his five-day visit, the Pope will meet various religious leaders, with a highlight being a Holy Mass at the Kidron Valley in Jerusalem, where thousands are expected to participate on the afternoon of May 12.

The Pope will also visit the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem on May 11, Temple Mount, the Western Wall, Mount Zion, the Cenacle and Gethsemane Church on May 12. After a visit to Bethlehem and Mass at Manger Square, he will deliver another Mass in Nazareth at Mount Precipice and pray at the Church of the Annunciation.

Will there be room at the inn?

Ceremonies planned for the trip are meant primarily for the local Christian community living in Israel, although it is not likely services will be conducted in Arabic, Shani says.

About 10,000 pilgrims are expected to arrive, but as many as 25,000 could come. It’s hard to predict at this point, says Shani, noting that travel agents around the world are currently working on booking clients trips and itineraries to coincide with the papal visit. As part of the visit, the volunteer organization Yad Sarah extends an invitation to all special needs tourists and pilgrims to utilize its special services and equipment hire for visitors with special needs.

In 2008, an estimated 1.8 million of the three million tourists who visited Israel were Christians. Of these, over one million defined themselves as pilgrims, reports the ministry. This represents a twofold increase since 2007 and a 17% increase since Pope John Paul II visited Israel.

Shani thinks that beyond getting to see the most important figure in the Catholic Church in the Holy Land where Jesus was born, raised, and then resurrected, pilgrims who come to Israel this time around should also take a closer look at Israel’s often-overlooked biblical tourism treasures.

Christians may know Israel through the Bible, he says, but there are many sides they tend to overlook, like the Ellah Valley. Outside of Tel Aviv, “they can go to the Ellah Valley and imagine King David and Goliath there,” he says. There are other cultural treasures as well like great Israeli cuisine, and the nightlife that the country offers.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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