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In Holy Land, Pope Francis to Focus on Unity Without Ignoring Conflict

16 May 2014 – By Francis X. Rocca

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — On Pope Francis’ first trip to the Holy Land, May 24-26, his agenda will focus on the search for Christian unity, particularly between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. But inevitably, in a region so rich in history and so fraught with conflict, he will address other urgent issues, including dialogue with Jews and Muslims, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the plight of the Middle East’s shrinking Christian population.

The Vatican has emphasized that the pope’s main purpose on the trip is to meet in Jerusalem with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, considered first among equals by Orthodox bishops. The official logo for the papal visit is an icon of the Apostles Peter and Andrew, patron saints of the churches of Rome and Constantinople, joined in a fraternal embrace.

Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew are scheduled meet four times during the pope’s three-day visit. Their private meeting on 25 May will mark the 50th anniversary of the encounter in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople, which opened the modern period of ecumenical dialogue.

At an ecumenical service that evening, representatives of the three churches who share custody of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher — Catholic, Greek-Orthodox and Armenian — will pray together at the site of Jesus’ burial and resurrection. The event will be “extraordinarily historic,” according to the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, since the three communities normally observe strict separation when they worship in the church.

Despite the focus on relations among Christians, Pope Francis’ brief visit will not take in the northern Israeli region of Galilee, where most of Israel’s Christians live. Both St. John Paul and Pope Benedict included the region on their much longer visits, respectively, in 2000 and 2009.

About 1,000 Galileans, out of a total congregation of about 9,000, will attend Pope Francis’ Mass in Bethlehem on 25 May. Christians from Lebanon and Iraq are expected at the other public papal Mass of the trip, in Amman, Jordan, on 24 May.

The predicament of Christians throughout the Middle East will be “among the principle concerns” that the pope discusses with Patriarch Bartholomew, the patriarch recently told Catholic News Service. The region’s Christian population has sharply diminished and grown increasingly precarious over the last decade, following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Arab Spring revolts against authoritarian regimes and the Syrian civil war.

Pope Francis has been especially vocal about Syria, and if he addresses that conflict during the trip, he is most likely to do so in Jordan, where he will meet with Syrian as well as Iraqi refugees following a visit to a possible site of Jesus’ baptism.

The pope’s encounters with non-Christian religious leaders are scheduled for the last day of his visit, when he meets with the Muslim grand mufti of Jerusalem and the two chief rabbis of Israel in separate events. In contrast to the visits of St. John Paul and Pope Benedict, this papal trip to the Holy Land will not feature any event with representatives of the three major monotheistic faiths.

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Tags: Pope Francis Holy Land Unity Holy Land Christians