Pope Francis announced Sunday he plans to visit Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories on May 24-26, and meet with the leader of the Orthodox Christian Church. He will be the fourth pontiff to visit the Christian Holy Land in the modern era.
The pope made the announcement Sunday, which was the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI's first trip to Jerusalem six months into his papacy to meet the leader of the Orthodox Christian Church.
Francis told the crowd in St. Peter's Square that he was announcing his three-day visit to Amman, Bethlehem and Jerusalem "in the climate of joy that is typical of the Christmas season," according to The Associated Press.
Israel's Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said the pope "is very welcome in Israel and he will be greeted as warmly as his predecessors were," according to Jerusalem Post.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also welcomed the announced visit, saying he hoped it would "contribute to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinian people who aspire for freedom, justice and independence," according to the Palestinian news agency Wafa.
Jordan's Royal Palace said it would mark a "significant milestone for brotherhood and forgiveness between Muslims and Christians and consolidates the message of peace."
"It's less newsworthy now that the pope will travel to Israel and Palestine than it was a generation ago, but it is also significant to note it comes very early in his papacy, which I think shows it is a high priority," the newspaper quoted the Rev. Alistair Sear, a retired church historian, as saying. "John Paul traveled more than any pope in history and he did a great deal to bring Jews and Catholics closer, but he didn't go to Israel until the 22nd year of his papacy."
It will likely be the pope's second foreign trip after the 2013 visit to Brazil for World Youth Day last July.
Pope John Paul II visited Israel in 2000, and Pope Benedict XVI visited in 2009.
While the Vatican said the trip has not been planned with any geopolitical considerations, Francis might renew the church's call for peace between Israel and Palestine, Jerusalem Post reported, quoting Vatican news sources.
The pope's visit might also signal a change in how the Catholic Church relates with the Jewish community and the Orthodox Christian Church.
Pope Francis will be joined by the current ecumenical patriarch, Bartholomew in Jerusalem, and the two will celebrate Mass together at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus was believed to be crucified and buried.
Meanwhile, the pope on Saturday talked about same-sex marriage, urging the church to reconsider how it treats children of divorced, gay couples, according to Reuters. On Sunday, the Vatican clarified that his comments did not indicate an openness to gay marriages.