Pope to Make First Holy Land Trip in May, Says Israeli Paper

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Pope Francis is to make a brief visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories from May 25, his first to the Holy Land, Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot said on Thursday.

According to the top-selling daily, which published what it said was a preliminary papal program, Israeli authorities are unhappy with the brevity of the 48-hour visit and the fact that the prelate will not celebrate mass in Israel, but in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Christ's traditional birthplace.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said he could not comment on travel plans.

"It is in the first instance up to the pope himself to decide upon and to announce such a visit," he told AFP.

But he said that officials had made preparatory "contacts and a site visit."

A trip could be announced by the Vatican in the weeks following Christmas, an official said on condition of anonymity.

Yediot said that a Vatican delegation made a preparatory visit to Israel this week.

The pope's itinerary was yet to be finalized, the paper said, but he was expected to arrive in Israel from neighboring Jordan on the morning of May 25 and meet Israeli President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and heads of local religious communities.

He would visit Christian and Jewish holy sites and the Yad Vashem Holocaust in Jerusalem but would not go to the northern Israeli Arab city of Nazareth or other sites in the Galilee region.

Yediot said that the pope was to visit Bethlehem on May 26.

He was invited to visit the Holy Land by Peres in April, and by Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, who met him on October 17.

In a Christmas message delivered on Wednesday, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem Fuad Twal said that Pope Francis "cares about the Holy Land and the Middle East."

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