Pope John Paul hopes to fulfill his dream of tracing the footsteps of Jesus Christ next March when he makes a visit to Holy Land sites ruled by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the Vatican said Wednesday.
The visit, the first by a Pope to the Holy Land since 1964, is expected to take place within the last 10 days of March.
It will represent one of the most historic of the Pope’s pontificate, now in its 21st year and the realization of a burning desire for the 79-year-old Pope. Despite age and infirmity, he is determined to see his church of a billion members into Christianity’s third millennium.
"The Apostolic trip to the Holy Land...is expected to take place in the last 10 days of March. The precise dates have not been set," Archbishop Cresenzio Sepe told a news conference on the Vatican’s calendar of 2000 celebrations.
Sepe told Reuters afterwards the Pope was expected to visit Christ’s birthplace in Bethlehem, Nazareth where he grew up, the Mount of the Beatitudes, the place near Lake Galilee where Christ is said to have read his Sermon on the Mount, and Jerusalem, where he was arrested and crucified.
Bethlehem is a Palestinian-ruled town in the West Bank and Nazareth is Israel’s largest Arab city. The only other Pope in modern times to visit the Holy Land was Paul VI, who made a trip there 35 years ago.
Holy Land Trip A Centerpiece Of Millennium
Pope John Paul’s trip is seen as one of the centerpieces of Vatican millennium celebrations, which begin this December 24 and end on January 6, 2001, on the feast of the Epiphany.
"I have a strong desire to go personally to pray in the most important places which, from the Old to the New Testament, have seen God’s intervention," the Pope said in a letter last June on his desire to make a number of millennium trips.
At least part of the trip to the Holy LAnd had been put in some doubt by Israel’s controversial plans to build a mosque near the main Christian shrine in Nazareth.
The Vatican spokesman said just a month ago that the mosque controversy was hurting preparations for the trip. Churches in the Holy Land have said they will shut for two days in November to protest at plans for the mosque.
Vatican Delegation To Iraq To Decide On That Trip
Before he visits the Holy Land, the Pope may make another potentially historic visit to Iraq to see the city of Ur, birthplace of the Biblical patriarch Abraham.
Vatican sources said a Holy See delegation plans to leave this week for Baghdad for meetings with Iraqi officials to determine if and when the Pope will visit the country.
The sources said the trip still was not confirmed and there still was a possibility that it would not take place at all.
"The delegation is going not so much to prepare for a trip but to find an agreement on whether a trip can take place," one source said.
At the news conference presenting the 2000 calendar, Sepe said plans for Iraq were still "in evolution" and he could not confirm that the Vatican was now aiming for a January visit.
The delegation is expected to be headed by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, an official in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.
The United States and Britain have warned the Vatican that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein might try to use the trip for his political gain. The Pope wants an exclusively religious trip.
Plans for a visit to Iraq were to have included a brief stop on Egypt’s Mount Sinai but if the Iraq trip goes ahead in January, the visit to Mount Sinai might have to be postponed because it would be too cold then, Vatican officials have said.