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Pope 'to visit Holy Land in May'

23 December 08 15:28 GMT

Pope Benedict XVI is to make his first visit to the Holy Land in May, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem has said.

Fouad Twal said the Pope wished to pray with the people of Jerusalem and acquire first-hand knowledge of the difficult conditions facing the region.

Archbishop Twal did not give specific dates for the visit but reports suggest the pontiff could travel to Jordan, Israel and the West Bank in mid-May.

He is expected to visit Nazareth and Bethlehem during the trip.

While he is there, Pope Benedict will also meet the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Tense relations

The trip will be his first visit to the Middle East since his election as pontiff in 2005.

Archbishop Twal, the Vatican's most senior representative in the Holy Land, gave the first official confirmation of the trip during his Christmas message.

He said that Pope Benedict would, just like his immediate predecessors, be visiting Jerusalem as a pilgrim.

"The supreme pontiff wishes to pray with us and for us, and to acquire first-hand knowledge of the hard conditions of our region," he added.

In his Christmas message, the archbishop expressed the hope that the region would see an end to "occupation... injustice... fears, hardships and [the] internal divisions that beset this land".

The building of Israeli settlements "strangles" the land, the archbishop added.

He called on the international community to reach a "just and final peace in the Holy Land", and encouraged Palestinians to seek political reconciliation.

"We also call upon the Palestinians themselves to return to unity in the context of a recognised Palestinian legal structure, and in this way to spare the people the continuing and degrading siege," Archbishop Twal added.

The West Bank and Gaza Strip have been run by separate administrations since June 2007, when the Islamist militant group Hamas ousted forces loyal to Mr Abbas and his Fatah movement from the Gaza Strip.

The patriarch, who was born into a Christian bedouin tribe in Jordan, was appointed to his current post by the Vatican in June.

He replaced Michel Sabbah, who was also known for his passionate appeals for an end to violence in the Middle East.

Relations between Israel and the Vatican have become tense in recent months, after news leaked out that the Vatican was considering making the wartime Pope Pius XII a saint, reports the BBC's David Willey in Rome.

Some Israelis accuse Pius of having turned a blind eye to the Holocaust, although the Vatican denies this.

However the beatification of the sometimes controversial Pope has been put on hold by Pope Benedict for the time being, as he wants to create a positive atmosphere for his first visit to the Middle East, says our correspondent.

Pope Paul VI was the first pontiff to visit Israel, in 1964. The last Pope, John Paul II, visited in 2000.

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