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Israel Lauds Pope’s Interest in Mideast Pilgrimage

<i> From Associated Press</i>

Israeli tourism officials on Wednesday welcomed Pope John Paul II’s statement expressing his most serious interest to date in visiting religious sites in the Middle East, including the Holy Land.

On Tuesday, before a crowd of thousands at St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, the pontiff announced his desire to make a “special pilgrimage” in the upcoming millennium year.

Israeli Tourism Minister Moshe Katsav, who announced earlier this year that the pope would visit Israel and the Palestinian areas next March, said he welcomed the decision. The Vatican has yet to confirm such a trip.

Much may depend on the pope’s health. The frail, 79-year-old pontiff two weeks ago canceled a hastily arranged trip to Armenia because he was ill.

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The pope has spoken previously of making a Middle East trip, but the fact that he made such a formal announcement on the Roman Catholic feast day of Sts. Peter and Paul underlined how much he wants to make the pilgrimage.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority hope a visit by the pope will boost tourism during millennium celebrations. About 4 million tourists are expected to visit in 2000.

Until now, the pope has been reluctant to visit Jerusalem, apparently because of concern that his presence could be interpreted as support for Israeli rule over all of the city.

One of the issues on the table in peace talks between the Palestinians and Israelis is the future of disputed Jerusalem. The Palestinians claim the eastern sector, captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War, as a future capital.

Although John Paul did not mention any specific sites of pilgrimage in his speech, in a text given earlier to journalists, he listed Ur in Iraq, the ancient Sumerian city on the Euphrates where the Bible says Abraham was born; Mt. Sinai in Egypt; Nazareth in Israel; Bethlehem in the Palestinian-controlled portion of the West Bank; and Jerusalem.

In another document released Wednesday by the Vatican, the pope wrote that he would like to add Damascus, Syria, and Athens to his itinerary.


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