VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis will travel to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan in May, his first visit to the Holy Land and one that comes amid a new U.S. push for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Francis told thousands gathered in the rain for his weekly Sunday blessing that "in the climate of joy that is typical of the Christmas season," he was announcing a visit May 24-26 to Amman, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. It is the only papal trip confirmed so far for 2014 and the second foreign trip of Francis' pontificate, following his 2013 visit to Brazil for World Youth Day.
Francis said his prime aim was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and the then-spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Atengora. Catholics and Orthodox have been divided since the Great Schism of 1054, precipitated largely by disagreements over the primacy of the pope.
Francis will be the fourth pope to visit the Holy Land.
The visit also underscores Francis' close ties to the Jewish community, his outreach to Muslims and the Vatican's longstanding call for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
All three governments welcomed the papal visit.
The Palestinian news agency Wafa said President Mahmoud Abbas hoped it would "contribute to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinian people who aspire for freedom, justice and independence."
In Jerusalem, Israeli Foreign Ministry Yigal Palmor said Francis was "will be greeted as warmly as his predecessors were."
Jordan's Royal Palace said the Amman leg of Francis' visit would mark a "significant milestone for brotherhood and forgiveness between Muslims and Christians and consolidates the message of peace."