Pope arrives today for historic visit
Pope Benedict XVI will arrive in Israel today following a visit to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
The pope, who is on a pilgrimage of holy sites in the Middle East, will land at Ben-Gurion International Airport at approximately 11:15 A.M. on a special Royal Jordanian flight. He will be met by Israeli dignitaries and will then be flown by helicopter to Jerusalem.
Preparations for the pontiff's arrival were completed on Sunday with a trial-run of an official reception ceremony for a head of state.
The pope will be accompanied on his flight from Jordan by 40 members of the Vatican staff, and 70 reporters.
Receiving the pontiff at the airport will be President Shimon Peres and other dignitaries of the State of Israel.
Upon arrival in Jerusalem, the pope will be greeted by Mayor Nir Barkat and other dignitaries, at the Mount Scopus landing pad.
In the afternoon, the pontiff will meet at the President's Residence with Peres and the parents of the captive Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit; a tree-planting ceremony is also scheduled there.
In the late afternoon the pope will visit Yad Vashem and will make a statement after laying a wreath at the memorial for those who perished in the Holocaust.
The head of the Catholic Church will hold an interfaith meeting in the early evening at the Notre Dame hotel in the city.
During his stay in Israel, through Friday, the pontiff will reside at the home of the Vatican ambassador in Jerusalem and not at one of the city's hotels.
The pope's visit to Jordan ended on Sunday with a cornerstone-laying ceremony for two new churches on the banks of the Jordan River, in an area where John the Baptist is believed to have carried out the baptism of Jesus. The pope, accompanied by King Abdullah and his wife, Queen Rania, toured the site.
In his address before the crowd there, the pope talked about the need to behave in a Christian fashion to bring peace among religions, and noted that the Catholic Church is marking the year of the family in 2009.
Earlier in the day, the pontiff held mass at the Amman stadium, which was attended by thousands of believers from Jordan, nearby Arab states and other foreign countries, who flew in for the special ceremony.
On Friday, comments made by Pope Benedict XVI during a speech on Mount Nevo, regarding the connection between Christianity and Judaism, drew criticism from Islamic and non-Catholic Christian leaders, who described his statements as "surrendering to Zionism."
The Vatican rejected the criticism and said that the pontiff's statements should not be taken out of context.
Father Rifat Bader, who was one of the official Vatican spokesmen during the papal visit to Jordan, said the pope's intentions were solely religious and he mentioned Judaism as a monotheistic religion. Bader insisted there was no political message in the statement or any reference to the relations with the State of Israel.
The papal visit to Israel has drawn thousands of pilgrims, and about 4,500 arrived during the weekend from Europe in an airlift carried out by the Sun Dor charter company using EL AL aircraft that are not used on the Sabbath.
According to Sun Dor CEO, Bezalel Karvat, the flights originated in Spain, Italy, Croatia and Poland - all with predominantly Catholic populations. From Madrid, three 747s were used to ferry more than 1,200 pilgrims, while flights of 757s brought in at least 400 more from Barcelona.
Arkia was also busy during the weekend, flying some 800 pilgrims from Italy to Israel.