JERUSALEM — Pope Francis's three-day trip to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories this weekend will be a whirlwind tour of the Holy Land. Here is a look at five fascinating facts that make this papal visit more interesting than the three previous trips by the Holy See to Israel and the West Bank.
1) A travel agent’s nightmare
After spending his first day and night in Jordan, the pope travels to Bethlehem in the West Bank via helicopter. Good idea. The Allenby land crossing between Israel and Jordan is notoriously slow.
After a mass in Bethlehem's Manger Square, a visit to Church of the Nativity and a meet and greet with Palestinian refugees, the pontiff will be whisked by helicopter to Tel Aviv to be greeted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 45-minute arrival ceremony, only to jump back in the helicopter to fly all the way back to Jerusalem -- which is less than 15 minute drive from Bethlehem, where his day’s journey started.
Why all the time in the air?
Well, it's certainly not for him to enjoy the views of the Mediterranean coastline. According to official protocol, dignitaries visiting Israel must be officially welcomed at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, and previous popes arrived there and then simply popped over to the Palestinian territories at some point during their trips. But Rabbi Abraham Skorka, a friend of Francis who spoke to reporters this week, the current pope wants to draw a clear distinction between his visit to Israel and what the Vatican has recognized as the State of Palestine, which was granted non-member observer state status by the United Nations in 2012.
2) No armored car ... in the Middle East?
Despite heightened religious and political tensions in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and a spike in anti-Christian vandalism by Jewish extremists, Pope Francis intends to travel around Jerusalem in an open car. His predecessors usually used bulletproof vehicles on their trips, as do most visiting heads of state.
The move comes amidst warnings from Israeli security forces that radical elementsmight pose a threat during the papal visit. But the pope has made no secret that say he is a people person who seeks to be close to his followers.
3) A pope, a rabbi and an imam
A pope, a rabbi and an imam visit the Holy Land together -- it might sound like the start of a joke. But Pope Francis has made clear his belief in interfaith relations and dialogue.
The pontiff will be the first pope to travel with religious leaders from other faiths, who will join him as members of his official entourage. Two good friends who are respected religious leaders in Buenos Aires -- Skorka, with whom he wrote a book, and Imam Omar Abboud -- will accompany him to the Holy Land.
4) Making nice with Herzl
In a move that some in Jerusalem are calling a true milestone in Catholic-Jewish relations, Pope Francis will lay a wreath at the grave of Theodore Herzl, the Viennese writer and founder of the Zionist movement who laid the groundwork for the modern State of Israel.
This will be the first papal visit to Herzl's grave, and it comes 110 years after the founder of Zionism first approached the Catholic Church in a quest for support for a Jewish State in the Ottoman Empire’s Palestine. During his meeting with Pope Pius X in 1904, Herzl was told that the church would only recognize a Jewish State once the Jews embraced Jesus.
Some pro-Palestinian groups have expressed dismay that Pope Francis would recognize the founder of Zionism and its "patently racist ideology," in the words of Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian leader of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Barghouti, in a statement, called the Pope’s visit to the Herzl grave an attempt “to whitewash Israel’s occupation and apartheid.”
5) In hot water with Hezbollah
The head of Lebanon's Maronite Church, Cardinal Bechara Rai, will also meet Pope Francis on his trip. The cardinal will be the first leader of the Lebanese church to visit Jerusalem since it was captured by Israel in 1967.
His planned rendezvous with Francis in Jerusalem has already drawn fire from the Lebanon-based militant group and political party Hezbollah, which considers Israel an enemy state.
In general, Lebanon and Israel, which have fought several wars over the past 66 years, ban their citizens from visiting each other’s countries.