Land of milk, honey and eggshells: Francis in the Holy Land

Holy Land awaits

Pope Francis is about to undergo the greatest test of his diplomatic and interpersonal skills. Tomorrow he begins a three day pilgrimage to the Holy Land. No matter what he does and says, he won't please everybody, predicts The Economist.

Pope Francis will follow his predecessors in visiting Jerusalem's Western Wall as well as the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem. When Pope Benedict trod the same ground in 2009, he somewhat disappointed his hosts by referring to 'millions' of deaths in the Holocaust (rather than the precise figure of 6m) and speaking of the Shoah as 'tragedy' rather than a crime.

That gives some idea of the intense scrutiny to which Pope Francis's every word and gesture will be subjected. Why is he visiting the Holy Land? 

Formally speaking, Pope Francis's journey to the Holy Land is a pilgrimage whose main purpose has to do with Christianity's internal divisions.

On Sunday evening and again the following day, he will meet Bartholomew I, the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch who is deemed the 'first among equals' within the hierarchy of Orthodox church.

They will mark the 50th anniversary of a meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras which was considered a breakthrough in inter-church relations.

Even that meeting will have its difficulties. Conservative Orthodox Christians will be watching suspiciously to see whether the Patriarch, from their point of view, compromises on any theological principles that have divided the Christian West and the Christian East since 1054. 

Inevitably, though, the Pope's hectic tour will have much wider resonance because of the signals it will send to the conflicting parties in the Middle East, and to the Abrahamic faiths.

Relations between Israel and the Holy See are laden with historical baggage. The Vatican reacted sceptically to Israel's creation in 1948 and the two polities exchanged ambassadors only in 1994; even now, some of the details governing Catholic properties and religious orders in the Holy Land have yet to be settled.

The broad trend in Vatican-Israeli relations has been one of improvement, although they were shaken when Pope Benedict rehabilitated a holocaust-denying bishop, and when the Vatican sharply criticised Israel's reaction to the Palestinian intifada.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, will welcome the opportunity to highlight the realities of life in the occupied territories. The Pope will travel from Amman to Bethlehem, which apart from being the traditional site of Christ's nativity is a stronghold of Palestinian Christians, whether Orthodox, Catholic or Lutheran. As well as celebrating Mass he will visit a Palestinian refugee camp, and doubtless reaffirm the Vatican's support for a two-state solution in the region. 

Read full article: Why the Pope is going to the Holy Land (The Economist)

MORE:

Seeking Balance on Mideast Visit, Pope Pleases Few (The New York Times)

Pope To Travel To Holy Land With Rabbi And Muslim Leader (OPB)

Pope in Holy Land (The Catholic Leader)

Reality check: A pope in Israel (The Jerusalem Post)

Paul VI's trip to the Holy Land 50 years ago marked the dawn of papal visits (Vatican Insider)

Pope picks one of dueling baptism sites in visit to Holy Land (The Washington Post)

Anglicans and Catholics to hold an hour of prayer to support papal visit to the Holy Land (Vatican Radio)

Caught in the middle: Christians in Israel Palestine (The Economist)

Pope Francis: pilgrim in the Holy Land (Vatican Radio)

WATCH:

Pope Paul VI meets Eastern Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras in Turkey (Critical Past)

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