Pope confirms Holy Land pilgrimage
Pope Benedict XVI confirmed yesterday that he would visit Israel from May 11-15, in the first papal visit since 2000 and the second official visit by a pope to the country.
Announcing the dates of the long-planned pilgrimage, the Pope said he would visit the sites where Jesus was and would pray for the gift of unity and peace for the Middle East and all humanity.
Benedict told a crowd gathered in St. Peter's Square for the traditional noontime blessing that he was asking the faithful for their spiritual support for the Holy Land pilgrimage.
"I will make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to ask the Lord, by visiting the places sanctified by his earthly passage, for the precious gift of unity and peace for the Middle East and for all humanity. I am counting on the spiritual support of all of you, and may God accompany me, support me, and bless with his Grace all those who I meet on my way," the pontiff said.
President Shimon Peres welcomed the Pope's visit in a speech at the Tel Hai memorial yesterday. "The Pope received my invitation to visit the Holy Land, and he will be an honored and welcomed guest of all the people," said the president. "His visit is an important and exciting event that brings the spirit of peace and hope."
The 81-year-old pontiff will arrive in Israel on a Royal Jordanian flight on May 11 at 11 A.M. He will be received at the airport by Peres and high-ranking Israeli leaders. He will depart on May 15 on an El Al flight.
The Tourism Ministry began urgent preparations for the visit, as the Pope is expected to be accompanied by over 40,000 pilgrims. The ministry hopes to use the occasion to promote Israeli tourism among Christians worldwide. The ministry requested NIS 20 million for the visit, noting that the accompanying pilgrims would benefit the tourism industry by about NIS 60 million.
Ministry director-general Shaul Tzemach said his colleagues were busy arranging the event, working in tandem with the Jerusalem municipality to improve the infrastructure and appearance of important sites, including the Mount Zion area, the Gethsemane Church, the Rachel checkpoint at the entrance to Bethlehem. Other sites, like the Good Samaritan site and Last Supper Room have already been repaired, at a cost of NIS 6 million, over the past few months. The last decade had seen great investment in sites of Christian significance, like the Via Dolorosa, the Mount of Olive promenade and pilgrimage routes in Jerusalem, Nazareth and around the Kinneret.
Nevertheless, expectations are not running very high, said Tzemach, because the "landmark" papal visit was that of Pope John Paul II, in 2000; this visit will be focused more on the local Christian community. Tzemach added this was another reason to promote the event to as many Christians as possible.
The director of the Genesis Tours company, which brought 45,000 pilgrims to Israel in 2000, said he was unsure how many would accompany the pontiff this time. He pointed out that a particularly large pro-Israeli Catholic community, 20,000 of which members are expected to arrive, is yet to reply.
In 2008, 3,000,000 tourists visited Israel, but growth was stalled by the world economic crisis and the war in the Gaza Strip. Tzemach voiced hopes that 2009 would not see Israel retreat to 2007 figures, just 2.3 million tourists.
"This period makes the visit all the more important. It will be one of the most important tourist events of 2009," Tzemach said.