5 things to watch for during pope's Mideast trip

By Josef Federman

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, May 24 2014 9:34 a.m. MDT

A woman attends as Pope Francis celebrates a mass in Amman's International Stadium, Jordan, Saturday, May 24, 2014. The pontiff is in Jordan on the first of a three day trip to the Middle East that will also take him to the West Bank and Israel.

Andrew Medichini, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

JERUSALEM — Pope Francis' trip to the Middle East offers a host of symbolically important — and potentially problematic — moments, from the gifts he'll receive to the venues he'll visit and words he will pronounce. Here are five things to look for during his trip starting Saturday to Jordan, the West Bank and Israel.

GIVING GIFTS

Standard diplomatic protocol calls for political and religious leaders to exchange gifts when visiting one another, and a papal trip to the Holy Land is no different.

When Pope Paul VI met in Jerusalem with the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians in 1964 — an encounter Francis is commemorating with his visit — Paul presented Patriarch Athenagoras with a chalice, while the patriarch gave Paul a golden medallion which Orthodox bishops wear. The significance was immediately clear: a mutual desire to end 900 years of division stemming from the Great Schism of 1054, which split Christianity into Catholic and Orthodox churches.

"The chalice was a symbol of sacramental union ... while the medallion was a sign of episcopal unity," said Valeria Martano, whose recent book "The Embrace of Jerusalem" recounts the historic meeting.

Political points can also be scored with gifts: When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Francis in December, he gave him a book about the Catholic Church's forced conversion of Jews in Spain written by his late father, an expert on the Inquisition. When the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, paid his respects a few months earlier, Francis presented him with a pen. "I hope to use this pen to sign a peace accord with Israel," Abbas said.

To watch for then is what Francis will give, but more importantly what he'll receive from his various hosts.

Francis' gift to leaders and patriarchs, unveiled Saturday, was a bronze medallion of Paul VI and Athenagoras meeting in Jerusalem. Worth noting is that in the medallion, Paul appears even taller than Athenagoras, even though at 1.9 meters (6-foot, four inches), the Orthodox patriarch dwarfed the slighter-built Paul.

In the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Palestinians plan to give the pope a cross that includes pieces of the Israeli separation barrier that surrounds the biblical town. A local artist, Nicola Elias, will give the pope a painting showing Francis carrying a cross near the barrier. Palestinians say the barrier — which Israel says is a security measure — has hindered movement and suffocated the economy.

In Jerusalem, meanwhile, Israel's national Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, is preparing to present the pope a number of items, including a collection of poems and a replica of a painting made by Abraham Kolowicz, a 14-year-old boy who perished in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

POWERFUL SYMBOLS

The gifts are part of a larger battle between Israel and the Palestinians to win support for their deep connections to this contested piece of land.

For Israel, the pope will visit the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. For Palestinians, the pope will go to a Palestinian refugee camp and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Old City. Each stop carries great significance. Israel wants the pope to see the ancient Jewish connection to the Holy Land, and to appreciate the great Jewish suffering that took place in the Holocaust. Palestinian refugees will tell the pope the story of the great suffering they have experienced in the 66 years since Israel was founded, while the Dome of the Rock symbolizes the Palestinian connection to east Jerusalem, which they claim as a future capital.

In Jordan, the first leg of Francis' trip, the pope will also make two symbolically significant stops: Praying at the spot where Jesus is believed to have been baptized, and meeting with Syrian, Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, learning first-hand about the plight of Christians fleeing conflict in the region.

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