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Tuesday, June 29, 1999 Published at 16:35 GMT 17:35 UK

World: Middle East

Pope plans millennium pilgrimage

Jerusalem beckons for the millennium visit

Pope John Paul II says he wants to mark the millennium with a pilgrimage to biblical sites in the Middle East. The Vatican says he hopes to visit the Palestinian Territories, Iraq and Egypt.

The Vatican emphasised that the pilgrimage would be "exclusively religious and spiritual", "stopping in places linked to the story of salvation".

The BBC's David Willey reports on the Pope's spiritual journey
No date or itinerary was given but the Pope has already expressed his wish to visit Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth. Mount Sinai in Egypt, where Moses received the Ten Commandments, and the ancient city of Ur in Iraq where the prophet Abraham was born, are also on the list.

A long wait

The Vatican recently confirmed that a trip to Iraq was possible later this year. However Israeli officials were expecting a visit in March next year.

[ image: The Pope insisted his pilgrimage would be a spiritual, not a political journey]
The Pope insisted his pilgrimage would be a spiritual, not a political journey
There have been standing invitations from the governments in the region. But although the Pope first expressed his wish to go to the Middle East as long ago as 1994, political and security problems in the area have prevented any firm plans.

Now, millions of Catholic pilgrims visiting Rome in 2000 are being encouraged by the Vatican to continue their pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and the Pope clearly hopes to join them.

Too many trips?

Concern about the strain that such extensive tours were putting on the Pope's frail constitution were heightened by his recent marathon visit to Poland, where he suffered a fall and also succumbed to a fever.

He has suffered from Parkinson's Disease for some time, with slurred speech and a trembling left hand as the outward symptoms.

But this latest announcement confirms the Pope's continuing determination to go out into the world, and particularly to celebrate what he calls the "Great Jubillee" of Christ's birth.

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