Pope Francis embarks on a much-anticipated tour of the Holy Land this weekend, visiting a host of biblical sites, political leaders and clergy from an array of faiths in three jam-packed days.
Like most things that take place in this part of the world, the trip has stirred controversy. Ahead of the pope's arrival, some Jewish extremists scrawled offensive graffiti on Christian churches and monasteries.
The pope’s schedule may not lessen tensions, either. The Holy Land teems with antiquity. But so much of the land’s ancient past, its hallowed temples and shrines, are the subject of heated contemporary debate and contest. The presence of the pontiff, known for his outspoken political views, could waken the disputes that surround many of the stops on his itinerary. Here are some potential hotspots:
Baptism Site at Bethany Beyond the Jordan: Pope Francis begins his tour of the Holy Land in Jordan, where he will go to the baptismal site of Jesus by the banks of the Jordan River. The Jordanians say that their newly discovered site is often overlooked by pilgrims and tourists who go to the Israeli-controlled side of the river, Qasr al Yahuda near Jericho. But the poope’s visit may help bolster Jordan’s case that Jesus was baptized on the east bank of the river.
Bethlehem: A headline event of the trip will be the public Mass held by the pontiff in Bethlehem’s Manger Square. The Mass will be followed by a visit to the Church of the Nativity. The pope is also expected to meet with families of Palestinian refugees. Last year, the pope journeyed to the tiny Italian isle of Lampedusa, a waystation for thousands of migrants desperate to reach Europe, and decried the "globalization of indifference" that led the West to ignore the migrants' suffering. If the pope expresses similar sympathies for Palestinians, many of whom live in decades-old refugee camps that have become permanent markers of their dispossession, he risks stoking the ire of some Israelis.
Church of the Holy Sepulcher: Going from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, the pope will convene an ecumenical meeting at this historic basilica. The visit is the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s meeting with Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem, which ended some nine centuries of enmities between the Latin and eastern churches.
Temple Mount: On Monday morning, Pope Francis will call on the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem at the Esplanade of the Mosques in Jerusalem’s Old City at the site Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call Haram al Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary. The compound is a setting for frequent clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces. The grand mufti, too, has courted controversy in the past, with statements calling for violence against Jews.
Western Wall: The pope will then visit the Western Wall, the ancient remnant of the retaining wall for the Jewish temple that existed at Temple Mount. It is the most trafficked tourist site in Israel and the source of many decades of tensions: first, between Jews and Arabs and, recently, between ultra-Orthodox and female Jewish activists over the right to worship at this hallowed site.
Mount Herzl: This is the site of Israel’s national cemetery, named after Theodor Herzl, the Budapest-born, 19th century founder of modern Zionism, the political ideology that underlies the existence of the Israeli state. Pope Francis will lay a wreath at Herzl’s grave, an act some are interpreting as the pontiff’s tacit recognition of the country’s Jewish character.
Yad Vashem: The pope will visit Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, which is on the western slope of Mount Herzl. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI gave a speech at Yad Vashem to a mixed response. Some Holocaust survivors who attended were angered then by the “lukewarm” address of the German cleric, who served both in the Hitler Youth and the German army.