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Francis to visit Israel, Palestinian territories

Oct. 18, 2013 at 2:30 AM   |   Comments

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VATICAN CITY, Oct. 18 (UPI) -- Pope Francis plans to visit Israel as soon as next year, the Vatican said, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also invited him to visit.

Having invitations now to visit both Israel and the Palestinian territories -- the area between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea that Christians call the Holy Land -- lets the Vatican "start thinking in a more concrete way regarding the planning of the visit," the Rev. Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said. He said the visit could take place in 2014.

Israeli President Shimon Peres invited the pope to visit Israel two days after Francis' papacy began March 13.

Francis confirmed with Israeli parliamentary lawmaker Yuli Edelstein during a meeting last week he would indeed make the trip.

"I'll come, I'll come," Francis responded in remarks quoted by The Jerusalem Post.

The Knesset speaker said the pontiff would be Edelstein's personal guest if he visited the Knesset.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu plans to meet with the pope at the Vatican Wednesday.

Francis would be the fourth pope to visit Israel since the country's establishment.

Pope Paul VI traveled to Jerusalem for a half-day in 1964 before the Vatican officially recognized Israel. Pope John Paul II visited for several days in 2000 and Pope Benedict XVI visited four years ago.

Francis met last week with members of Rome's Jewish community to observe the 70th anniversary of the start of deportations of Italian Jews from Rome to Nazi concentration camps during the World War II German occupation of Italy.

More than 1,000 Roman Jews were deported Oct. 16, 1943. Only 16 returned, The Wall Street Journal said.

"It's a contradiction for a Christian to be anti-Semitic: His roots are Jewish," the pope said last week.

The pope's Holy Land visit would forward his appeal for Middle East peace, a University of Notre Dame professor told the Journal.

"Pope Francis has already been very clear about his priority for the poor, the marginalized, the suffering and the oppressed of the world," Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies Director Scott Appleby told the newspaper.

"His focus [in the trip to the Holy Land] will be on the human toll of the conflict," Appleby said.

Francis and Abbas Thursday discussed the Middle East political conflict and, in particular, the new talks between Israelis and Palestinians in the "hope that this process may bear fruit and enable a just and lasting solution to be found to the conflict," the Vatican said.

When Francis gave Abbas a pen as a gift, the Palestinian president said, "I hope to use this pen to sign the peace treaty with Israel," the Journal quoted him as saying.

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