ROME - U.S. President Barack Obama's scheduled visit to Israel next week may be drastically disrupted by the expected installment of a new pope in the Vatican at the same time.
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The papal conclave is still proceeding in the Sistine Chapel without an outcome, but the foreign embassies represented at the Vatican have already been briefed to begin preparing high-level delegations for the ceremony of the new pope's coronation in the second half of next week. According to diplomatic sources, the closeness of the Roman ceremony to Obama's visit in Israel could cause a diplomatic incident.
There is no protocol that requires the United States or any other country to send its head of state to Rome for the papal installation - another senior minister can lead the delegation and in the case of the U.S., the senior Catholic in the administration, Vice President Joe Biden, would normally be sufficient, but the nationality of the next pope could change matters.
Among the leading candidates to be the next pope are two Americans Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan and Archbishop of Boston Sean O'Malley. Election of an American pope is unprecedented and there are 75 million Catholics in the U.S., the fourth largest Catholic community in the world.
It is hard to see how the U.S. President could not attend the installation of the first American pope. Catholics in the U.S. and around the world would see it as a major insult, especially if Obama was only three flight-hours away at the time. Obama has already clashed with the Catholic Church in his first term over the requirement that employers, including religious organizations, fund birth-control for their female employees.
Preparing the ceremony in the Vatican will take three or four days and there has to be time to allow delegations and tens of thousands of pilgrims to arrive from around the world. It is hard to see the Vatican agreeing to delay the ceremony, as the cardinals are anxious to return to their churches before Easter.
It will take a great deal of delicate diplomatic maneuvering between Israel, the U.S. and the Vatican to prevent a situation where Obama offends millions of Jews or a billion Catholics.