From his arrival Saturday afternoon in Amman, Jordan, to his departure Monday evening from Tel Aviv, Pope Francis began weaving his way through the Holy Land’s modern-day obstacle course, where rival narratives clash and religious animosities linger.
The pope will clearly not be able to deliver every message each side wants to hear. But on his first trip to the region as pontiff, Francis appears set to be a nimble diplomat, ready to cross religious and political boundaries and offer both Israelis and Palestinians something to applaud — and maybe argue about.
Pope Francis arrived here two months after U.S.-brokered peace talks collapsed with all sides blaming the others for the failure, and he has been enough of a maverick — and an advocate of interfaith dialogue — that Jews, Muslims and Christians here are nervously waiting to hear what he might say about the intractable Middle East conflict.
Past pontiffs have called on Israelis and Palestinians to seek peace and reconciliation. But if his short history as pope is a guide, Francis may make more pointed remarks. While upholding the church’s strictures against homosexuality, for example, he has also said that gays should not be marginalized. He has been a lifelong advocate for the poor and disenfranchised, and so Palestinians hope he will stress their cause. But he has also shown a traditional streak, with his belief that Satan is active in world affairs.
“We can never know with Francis; we don’t know what he will say. He is a pope full of surprises,” said Jamal Daibes, rector of the Latin Seminary here and one of the official spokesmen for the pope’s trip.
Francis and his entourage will board a helicopter three times to make it to 30 scheduled events during 55 hours in Jordan, the West Bank and Israel. He will meet not only the Jordanian monarch and a grand mufti of Islam but also two chief rabbis. Francis will also squeeze in visits to a Palestinian refugee camp, the Western Wall, the baptismal site of Jesus, the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and the grotto at the Church of the Nativity, where tradition says Christ was born.
He will celebrate Mass in Manger Square in Bethlehem and at the International Stadium in Amman, and — to the rumored frustrations of Israeli and Palestinian security forces — he wants to travel in an open car, the better to connect with the people.
“This visit is the ultimate marathon,” Daibes said.
On Wednesday, Pope Francis told 50,000 people in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City to pray for the success of his trip, which he described as “strictly religious.”
But strictly religious is not really possible here.
Palestinian authorities are already heartened that the Vatican is describing the pope’s trip to Bethlehem as a visit to the “state of Palestine,” where the pontiff will also meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Palestine was granted “non-member observer state” status by the United Nations in 2012, despite the adamant opposition of Israel and the United States.
Palestinian press officers have been hustling for weeks to make sure that some of the TV news camera angles will include glimpses of the gray cement separation wall that marks an ugly border between Israel and the Palestinian territory.
“Knowing who he is, and his feelings for suffering peoples, I am pretty sure he will say something about Palestinians living life under [Israeli] occupation and their daily humiliations,” Daibes said.
Christian leaders — worried about their denominations’ swiftly declining populations in Jordan, the West Bank and Jerusalem — are also hoping for validation from the pope. Arab Christians living in Israel are more worried than ever about their future as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presses to have the Israeli parliament declare the country a “Jewish state,” even though 20 percent of the Israeli population is not Jewish.
“We are a small flock, a small entity. We are happy with our situation. We do not want to become big. We want to remain as we are,” said Michel Sabbah, the Latin patriarch emeritus of Jerusalem. “But we don’t want to be lost, so that there are no Christians here.”
Israelis, for their part, are hopeful Francis will help to mend old wounds between Jews and Catholics. Rabbi Abraham Skorka, an old friend of Pope Francis and a fellow Argentine, called the pontiff “very unique and original,” a leader “who can write a new chapter in the relationship of Jews and Christians.”
“The pope has said, ‘Inside every Christian, there is a Jew, and anti-Semitism is a sin,’ ” said Skorka, who, along with an Argentine Muslim cleric named Omar Abboud, will accompany Francis on the trip.
“This pope is concerned with the conflict in Middle East,” the rabbi said. “He is a different pope from other popes. This pope wants to help, and he can help.”
The Israeli ambassador to the Vatican, Zion Evrony, said that relations between Israel and the Vatican have come a long way. When Pope Paul VI visited Israel in 1964, his trip lasted only 11 hours, and he did not utter the word “Israel,” Evrony said.
Jewish Israelis are pleased that, for the first time, a pope will honor the memory of one of the founders of Zionism, the Viennese writer Theodor Herzl, who tirelessly advocated for the creation of the state of Israel. At the suggestion of the Israelis, Francis plans to lay a wreath at Herzl’s grave, a first for a pope.
Famously, Herzl met with Pope Pius X in 1904 to lobby for a national homeland for Jews. The pope told Herzl, according to his diaries, that a Jewish state was anathema and that the problem was the Jews’ failure to recognize the divinity of Jesus Christ.
“It is significant that the pope is going to lay a wreath at the tombstone of Herzl, at the site of the grandfather of the state of Israel,” said Oded Ben Hur, former Israeli ambassador to the Vatican.
Many observers here have commented on Francis’s packed schedule and brief visit. But if all goes to plan, it will be a far more substantive tour than his last, in 1973, when the man then known as Jorge Bergoglio got to experience Middle East strife but little else.
“During that trip, he visited the Galilee for two days and went to Jerusalem,” Evrony said. But then war broke out between Israel and Arab states, and he stayed in his hotel for safety, Evrony said. “So he did not get to see much of the Holy Land.”
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