Israel may be cut out of Pope Francis’ visit to the Holy Land

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c. 2014 Religion News Service

JERUSALEM (RNS) Roman Catholic officials have announced the schedule for Pope Francis’ pilgrimage to the Holy Land but said a strike by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that began this week could force the Vatican to cut Israel from the itinerary.

Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal told journalists that the May 24-26 pilgrimage to Jordan and the Palestinian-ruled West Bank will take place, even if the Israeli strike continues. The ministry handles foreign dignitaries’ visits.

“If the strike will go two months, I don’t think that we can make the visit to Israel,” Twal said, adding that a much shorter strike could leave enough time to make the trip possible.

Twal is the Palestinian archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church.

He said church officials are proceeding on the assumption that the pope will be able to make all his planned stops. In addition to meeting with the countries’ political leaders, Francis will celebrate public Masses in Amman, Jordan, and Bethlehem, in the West Bank, and a Mass for Catholic clergy from different rites in Jerusalem.

The patriarch said the visit will emphasize unity, first and foremost among Christians of various denominations, as well as between Christians, Muslims and Jews.

The trip, whose theme is “So that they may be one,” is being held to mark the 50th anniversary of the meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras. That encounter was a major step toward reconciliation of the Great Schism that split the Eastern and Western churches nearly 1,000 years ago.

“We are called to be one, and the pope is coming to remind us of this and renew the spirit of unity and fraternal love,” Twal said.

The pope, who is a head of state, has asked his hosts to keep the pomp and circumstance to a minimum. His schedule includes meetings with children from Palestinian refugee camps and disabled youths in Jordan.

Twal expressed the hope that Israel will facilitate the entry of Palestinian Christians from Gaza and northern Israel into Palestinian-ruled Bethlehem so they can attend the Masses.