Pope announces first visit to Holy Land, May 24-26
Pope Francis leads a mass at St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on January 1, 2014
"In the climate of joy typical of this Christmas period, I would like to announce that from May 24 to 26, God willing, I will carry out a pilgrimage to the Holy Land," Francis told crowds gathered in St Peter's Square for the traditional Angelus prayer.
Francis said the date of the announcement -- January 5 -- was significant because it "commemorates the historic meeting between pope Paul VI and patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople", 50 years ago.
Their meeting in Jerusalem led to the rescinding of the excommunications of 1054 that caused the Great Schism between the churches of the East and West.
Francis said he would hold an "ecumenical meeting with all the representatives of the Christian Churches in Jerusalem" at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in east Jerusalem, which encloses the sites where Jesus is believed to have been crucified, buried and resurrected.
Among those attending, he said, would be the current patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew.
The assembly of Catholic bishops in the Holy Land warmly welcomed the announcement, expressing confidence that the trip would not be only an international event, but "mainly a message of love and brotherhood to all" those living in the countries Francis visits.
And they underlined that the meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew would aim to "highlight the desire for unity amongst all churches".
Francis was invited to visit the Holy Land by Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who said he would "walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ".
The 77-year-old pontiff has made many appeals for peace in the Middle East. During his meeting with Abbas, he called for "a just and lasting solution" to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
Reacting to Sunday's announcement, Abbas said the visit could "contribute to easing the burden of the Palestinian people who aspire to freedom, justice and independence," the Palestinian news agency Wafa reported.
The pontiff's visit had been anticipated by the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, which said Francis would celebrate a high mass in Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
The daily said Israeli authorities were unhappy with the brevity of the visit and the fact that the prelate will not celebrate mass in Israel, but in the West Bank, which is part of the Palestinian territories.
Francis made no mention of plans to hold a mass in Bethlehem in his Sunday announcement.
Unconfirmed information from Roman Catholic sources in the Holy Land had earlier indicated a possible papal visit to a refugee camp for Syrians in Jordan.
The Argentine pontiff's predecessor, Benedict XVI, visited Israel and the Palestinian territories in 2009.
Israel and the Vatican first established full diplomatic relations in 1993, but have been engaged in years of thorny diplomatic negotiations over property rights and tax exemptions for the Catholic Church, which have yet to be fully resolved.
The Vatican used the term "State of Palestine" for the first time in January 2013.
The news of the pope's trip came as US Secretary of State John Kerry was in the Middle East to push a framework for peace talks and broker negotiations which resumed in July after a three-year hiatus.
The Palestinians want borders based on the 1967 lines that existed before the Six-Day War, when Israel captured the West Bank, including now annexed Arab east Jerusalem.
But Israel wants to retain existing settlements it has built inside occupied Palestinian territory since then.
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