Pope Francis has received official invitations from President Shimon Peres, immediately after his election as pope and is due to visit Israel for a five-day pilgrimage in May. "I am expecting you in Jerusalem, not just me but the whole country of Israel." Peres told the pope in the presence of reporters. He added that Israelis saw Francis as a “leader of peace and good will.”
This is the second time a pope has visited the Holy Land. The first time was in 2000 when Pope John Paul II made his landmark visit; the second time was in 2009, when Pope Benedict XVI visited the Holy Land, including Palestinian territories.
The Pope's trip will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and Orthodox Christian spiritual leader in Jerusalem in 1964. That meeting was viewed as a landmark step in efforts to heal the nearly thousand-year schism between Eastern and Western Christianity. In his visit to the Holy Land, Pope Francis wants to promote and defend the Christian community in the Middle East; as they are facing almost unprecedented challenges today amid the upheavals since the Arab Spring.
Moreover, Francis wants to build bridges to the other Christian communities that have roots in the Holy Land, primarily the Eastern Orthodox.
This would be Pope Francis's second time in Israel; his first visit was in 1973, the same time the Yom Kippur War broke out. On his first day, Bergoglio was able to visit holy sites in Jerusalem, including the church-filled neighborhood of Ein Kerem, and Bethlehem. After that, because of the war, Bergoglio was unable to tour further. The young priest then in his mid-30 used the time studying to become the Provincial Superior of the Society of Jesus of Argentina.
Pope Francis is known by his good relationship with the Jewish Community around the world. He is also speaking out against anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, using his position to curb a growing surge of anti-Semitism in Europe.
The itinerary of the Pope's visit is yet to be finalized, but he is expected to arrive in Israel from Jordan and meet President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and heads of local religious communities.
He would visit Jewish and Christian holy sites such as Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus is said to have been buried, and is the site of pilgrimage for thousands of Christians each year, Yad Vashem Holocaust and the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray in Jerusalem. He would be also visiting Bethlehem, as it's a precise point in the Holy Land where Jesus lived. The Pope would not visit Nazareth or other sites in the Galilee region.