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Monday, 20 December, 1999, 14:13 GMT
Israel sorry for diplomatic blunder

The Pope's pilgrimage will take him to the heart of the Middle East minefield

Israel has apologised for a diplomatic blunder in announcing the dates of an historic papal visit to the Holy Land before the Vatican released details.

It was not intentional. I am very sorry about this leak
Haim Ramon

Israeli government spokesmen said on Sunday that Pope John Paul would visit sites in Israel and Palestinian-administered areas from 21-26 March 2000.

Haim Ramon, cabinet minister responsible for the trip, said there would be an inquiry into who authorised the breach of protocol.

The Pope's expected itinerary
Bathe in the River Jordan
Give mass in Bethlehem and Nazareth
Visit the old city of Jerusalem and the Holocaust Museum
Meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders

"We offer our apologies for having made that announcement," Mr Ramon said on Israeli military radio.

Israeli media reported that the statement had angered the Vatican. Prime Minister Ehud Barak's office broke the news after playing host to a preparatory visit by two senior Vatican envoys.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Aviv Shiron said the Pontiff planned to visit holy sites and would stay in a Vatican compound on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem.

Was incompetence or hubris behind the Barak team gaffe?

The papal visit was confirmed last month, but the exact dates and itinerary were not firmed up until last week's visit by the Vatican officials.

It will be the first trip to the Holy Land by a Pope since Paul VI visited in 1964.

Israel and the Vatican only began diplomatic relations in 1994. The Roman Catholic Church took a critical stance of Israel's military occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967.

Dispute in Nazareth

The papal tour of the Holy Land had been put in doubt because of a dispute over plans to build a mosque near the Holy Basilica of the Annunciation.

Christians believe this to be where the Virgin Mary was told by the Angel Gabriel that she would give birth to Jesus Christ.

The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem: Prime Papal destination

Vatican officials accused the Israeli authorities of creating religious divisions by approving the plan.

Christians had hoped to turn the land next to the Basilica into a public square for the thousands of pilgrims expected during the millennium celebrations.

Muslims in the town have laid the foundation stone for a new mosque on part of the site. They consider the area to be the burial site of a revered Islamic scholar.

Religious tensions exploded into violence last April. Demonstrations by thousands of Muslims left nearly 30 injured.

Early in November, Christian religious sites closed for two days in protest at the Nazareth plan.

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See also:
10 Dec 99 |  Middle East
Pope cancels Iraq trip
24 Nov 99 |  Middle East
Protest as mosque stone unveiled
04 Dec 99 |  Middle East
Bethlehem begins millennium celebrations
24 Nov 99 |  Middle East
Israel condemns Vatican in mosque row
22 Nov 99 |  Middle East
Christians take action in Nazareth
17 Nov 99 |  Middle East
Pope's Holy Land trip confirmed

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