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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

To watch for is the text of the note left by Francis at the Western Wall. When St. John Paul II visited in 2000, he left a note asking forgiveness for the suffering inflicted on Jews by Christians over history. Pope Benedict XVI's note prayed for peace for Christians, Muslims and Jews alike. The Vatican hasn't said whether Francis' note will be made public.

VANDALISM AND SECURITY CONCERNS

In recent weeks, vandals believed to be fringe Jewish radicals have scribbled anti-Arab and anti-Christian graffiti on Christian holy sites, including an attack on the Vatican's own Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem. The hate crimes have angered local church officials. Israeli authorities say they are working overtime to prevent any embarrassing incidents during the pope's stay.

The arrival of a pope to one of the world's most volatile conflict zones has created all sorts of challenges for local authorities — especially given Francis' aversion to heavy security and armored cars typically favored by world leaders. Francis plans to use his open-topped car for spins through Amman's stadium, where he will celebrate Mass on Saturday, and then again in Bethlehem on Sunday. He'll use a regular car for other transportation.

Adnan Dameri, spokesman for Palestinian security, said thousands of police from across the West Bank will be deployed to keep order.

"The pope is a man of the people and will let people get close to him and greet him. Therefore we have developed a security plan on this background assuming that he will be surrounded by people," Dameri said. He said the Palestinians "have no concerns" and that the pope will be warmly welcomed in the overwhelmingly Muslim West Bank. Still, he said a number of roads would be closed to traffic beginning Saturday night.

In security-obsessed Israel, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said police will take "all necessary steps" to maintain security, including escorts and cordoning off of areas. Some 8,000 police are being deployed throughout Jerusalem, including undercover and intelligence units, with helicopter units flying overhead. There are more than 320 security cameras in the Old City alone.

To watch then is whether the security measures will enable the pope to do what he loves — plunge into crowds to greet well-wishers — while still keeping him safe.

WHO SITS WHERE IN THE HOLY SEPULCHER?

There is perhaps no other piece of real estate on Earth that symbolizes the divisions in Christianity better than the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where the faithful believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. Three main Christian communities — Greek-Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic — share the church, zealously protecting their invisible turf borders and scheduling individual prayer services. Given that fist-fights among them occasionally break out, the joint prayer service planned for Sunday night will be a delicate exercise in religious protocol and diplomacy.

Francis and the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, will visit the church together and be greeted by the leaders of each of the three communities, and then all of them will pray together.

To watch for is how the event unfolds: Who sits where, who processes in first, who speaks and who doesn't will all carry enormous symbolic weight.

The Vatican has said Francis and Bartholomew will enter the church from two different entrances. But they will leave together in the same car and dine together at the Latin Patriarchate "to celebrate this extraordinary moment," said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.

LAST SUPPER

One point of tension between Israel and the Vatican has been over Christian access to the Room of the Last Supper, where Jesus was said to have had his final meal with his disciples before being crucified. Israel controls the site, and the Vatican has long sought increased access for prayer. Israeli and Church officials say that they are close to a deal allowing increased Christian prayer at the site.

This has sparked rumors that Israel is going to turn over the site to the Vatican — a claim that Israel denies. Even so, ultra-Orthodox nationalist Jews have plastered Jerusalem with posters furiously claiming Israel will give the Vatican control at the site, whose ground floor is revered by Jews as the tomb of the biblical King David.

Israel generally prohibits celebrating Mass there and restricts Catholic prayers to twice a year, on Holy Thursday and Pentecost. It has refused greater access, wary of setting a precedent of relinquishing properties taken over in the 1948 war that followed Israeli independence.

Still, Israel is allowing Francis to celebrate a small, private Mass in the room though the Vatican has said no live television footage of the Mass is expected. St. John Paul II celebrated Mass in the room when he visited the Holy Land in 2000 and Benedict prayed in the room on his 2009 pilgrimage.

To watch then is whether the Mass is disrupted or marred in any way by protests — and if a deal granting Christians greater access is announced.

Winfield reported from Vatican City. Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield .

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