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Pope's Holy Land trip to proceed as scheduled

Labour strife in Israel raised concerns about papal visit

07 March, 18:14
Pope's Holy Land trip to proceed as scheduled (By Denis Greenan) (ANSA) - Vatican City, March 7 - An important trip by Pope Francis to the Holy Land in May appeared to be threatened on Friday, but Vatican authorities later suggested that concerns had been calmed and that the trip was back on.

The trip to Israel, scheduled for May 24 to 26, will proceed as planned despite the current labour dispute at the Israeli foreign affairs ministry, said Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin. "Everything is going according to plan. This trip will take place according to the program already established," said Parolin.

Earlier Friday, the Vatican said the strike may pose difficulties in preparing the trip by Pope Francis to Israel and the Palestine Territories. Israel's foreign ministry had also said that the pope's visit would have to be postponed because of the labour dispute.

Ministry spokesman Ygal Palmor told ANSA that he was "pessimistic" about the pope's historic trip going ahead, noting that British Prime Minister David Cameron on Wednesday rescheduled his planned March 12 visit to Israel.

Palmor said that if the strike, which started on March 4, continues, "all visits will be cancelled".

"It is hard to prepare them in these conditions," he said.

"If the strike were to be revoked next week, there would still be time (for the papal visit) but at the moment there is no signal in this direction," Palmor added.

Despite his concerns, Vatican sources said it would send a delegation to Israel very soon to lay the groundwork for the visit by Francis.

The Holy See is continuing to organize the pope's trip, trusting that the Israeli diplomats' strike will be over by May, the sources said. Vatican Spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the strike "may create difficulties but for now, there is nothing further as far as we are concerned". The Times of Israel had said that cancelling the pontiff's visit could cause "large, measurable economic damage, with all the lost tourist revenue that would have accompanied the visit".

In early January the Argentine pontiff announced that he would be visiting Bethlehem and Jerusalem in May, as well as Amman, Jordan. Francis's trip has been designed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and Orthodox Christian spiritual leader Ecumenical Patriarch Atengora, in Jerusalem.

The trip is the second visit to the Holy Land by Francis, who became pope a year ago after Benedict XVI became the first pontiff in 600 years to abdicate.

The young Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a priest who later became Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, first travelled in Israel in 1973, just as the Yom Kippur War broke out. He spent six days confined by the conflict to his Jerusalem hotel, where he studied the Letters of Saint Paul to the Corinthians.

As pope, Francis was invited immediately after his election by Israeli President Shimon Peres, calling on him to visit as a spiritual rather than political leader. "The sooner you visit, the better; in these days, a new opportunity is being created for peace and your arrival could contribute significantly to increasing the trust and belief in peace," Peres told the new pope at the time.

Both of the pontiff's immediate predecessors visited Israel: Benedict in 2009 and John Paul II in 2000.