Pope arrives in Israel on Holy Land tour

11th May 2009, Comments 0 comments

Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Israel on Monday amid tensions and tight security.

BEN GURION AIRPORT - Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Israel on Monday on the latest part of his Holy Land tour, appealing for religious understanding and Middle East peace.

The pope arrived at Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv shortly after 8h00 GMT, where he was greeted by senior Israeli officials and top religious leaders.

Israel is arranging strict security for the trip under "Operation White Robe", with tens of thousands of law enforcement officers deployed, entire sections of Jerusalem shut down and Israeli air space closed for the pope's arrival.

But with Israel-Vatican relations strained, the German-born Benedict is not expected to receive the warmth that greeted his predecessor John Paul II on a landmark Holy Land visit in 2000.

Israel is angered over Benedict's supporting the beatification of Nazi-era pope Pius XII and ending the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying British bishop.

The pope flew in from Jordan for a five-day tour in Israel and the Palestinian territories in which he will visit Jewish and Muslim holy sites.

His trip is mainly aimed at encouraging the dwindling Christian population to stay in the Holy Land, as well as promoting peace and dialogue in a conflicted region sacred to the world's three main monotheistic religions.

In Amman, he repeated his request for religious tolerance between Christians and Muslims.

"I would like to encourage all Jordanians, whether Christian or Muslim, to build on the firm foundations of religious tolerance that enable the members of different communities to live together in peace and mutual respect," he said.

On this part of the tour, he will meet senior Israeli and Palestinian leaders, top Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious officials, and Palestinian refugees living near Israel's separation barrier in Bethlehem.

The Palestinians hope to use his visit to draw attention to their troubles, with the West Bank occupied by Israel and Gaza destroyed from Israel's war on the territory at the start of 2009.

Among his first stops in Israel will be the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, where he will lay a wreath in memory of the six million Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II.

But he will not visit the area of the memorial where a caption under a photo of Pius XII says the war-time pope failed to protest against the Holocaust -- a claim the Vatican disputes.

Israel spent about USD 10 million (EUR 7.5 million) on preparations for the visit, but the enthusiasm that greeted Pope John Paul II's historic trip in 2000 -- the first by a pope since Israel and the Vatican established diplomatic ties in 1993 -- is missing.

Benedict was criticised in January when he ended the excommunication of Holocaust-denying British bishop Richard Williamson and three other ultra-conservative bishops in what he called a "discreet gesture of mercy."

There is also concern over the Pius beatification and Benedict's membership of the Hitler Youth, although he said he was enrolled against his will after membership was enforced in 1941.

Over the past few months, preparations were made ahead of the visit.

In Nazareth, dozens of earthmovers tore up a side of Mount Precipice where the pope will give a mass and at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Franciscan monks closed down their chapel to paint the ceiling.

In the Aida refugee camp at Bethlehem, residents hope to use the visit to attract the world's attention to Israel's 8-metre (25-foot) high concrete wall bordering the city.

"Welcome Pope in Aida Camp," was the slogan written in English on the structure.

The pope is also expected to meet the parents of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli serviceman who has was held by Gaza militants since June 2006.

Hours before the pope's arrival, Israeli police closed down a Palestinian press centre in annexed east Jerusalem, where the Palestinians hope to establish the capital of their promised state, but where Israel forbids all official activity by the Palestinian Authority.

Catherine Jouault / AFP / Expatica

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