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Francis will walk religious tightrope in trip to Holy Land

| Friday, May 23, 2014, 8:27 p.m.
An ultra-Orthodox Jew walks past a banner for the upcoming visit of Pope Francis outside a Christian Information Center near the Jaffa Gate on Friday, May 23, 2014, in Old City of Jerusalem, Israel. Pope Francis is due to make his first visit to the Holy Land as pontiff and will visit both the West Bank and Israel this coming Sunday.
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An ultra-Orthodox Jew walks past a banner for the upcoming visit of Pope Francis outside a Christian Information Center near the Jaffa Gate on Friday, May 23, 2014, in Old City of Jerusalem, Israel. Pope Francis is due to make his first visit to the Holy Land as pontiff and will visit both the West Bank and Israel this coming Sunday.

JERUSALEM — From his arrival on Saturday afternoon in Amman to his departure on Monday evening from Tel Aviv, Pope Francis will weave 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 Israelis and Palestinians something to applaud — and maybe argue about.

Pope Francis will arrive two months since 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 Mideast conflict.

Past popes 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 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 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 two chief rabbis. Francis will 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 possible.

Palestinian authorities are heartened that the Vatican is describing the pope's trip to Bethlehem as a visit to the “state of Palestine,” where the pontiff will 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.

Christian leaders — worried about their denominations' swiftly declining populations in Jordan, the West Bank and Jerusalem — are 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 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 in 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 Pope Francis “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.”

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