ROME (JTA) — The Vatican says Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to visit Israel this spring is "courageous."
It cites the continuing strife in the region, strains in Jewish-Catholic relations and Israel’s political limbo.
"There are uncertainties in the political situation, numerous internal divisions in many areas," Vatican spokesman Rev. Frederico Lombardi said Feb. 14 on Vatican radio. "There are continuing tensions in a region prone to conflict, including recently a war that devastated the Gaza Strip and profoundly wounded its people."
"The peace process has hardly made any decisive steps," Lombardi added. "Shadows and mistrust repeatedly darken the dialogue that is well under way between the Jewish world and the Catholic Church."
Still, Lombardi said, "He must go — indeed, perhaps for all these reasons it is urgent to go, to pray at the most important places where hate and love confront each other, where reconciliation seems humanly impossible."
The pope made the first public announcement that he would visit Israel during a meeting last week with a delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Vatican officials said the trip, probably in May, primarily would be a pastoral visit to local Christians and also would include Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
In Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday confirmed the papal trip would take place in May and said President Shimon Peres would escort the pontiff around Israel.
"This May, we will receive a special visitor, Pope Benedict XVI," Olmert told his Cabinet. "President Shimon Peres will accompany him to various sites in Israel."
Olmert said he hoped Benedict’s trip "would be conducted in the proper atmosphere and be as successful as the previous pope’s visit." He did not give specific dates for the trip.
It will be the first papal trip to Israel since John Paul II made a historic pilgrimage in 2000. Only one other pope visited the Holy Land — Paul VI in 1964, before the Vatican and Israel established diplomatic relations. He spent only part of a day, did not visit Jerusalem and did not use the term "Israel" to describe where he was.