Pope to be 'pilgrim of peace' in Middle East

The Pope says he is visiting the Middle East as a “pilgrim of peace” and that he wants the visit to “bear much fruit” not only for Christians in the area but Jews and Muslims as well.

Pope Benedict XVI, speaking at a weekly audience in the Vatican, urged Catholics to pray that the visit would “bear much fruit for the spiritual and civic life of all who dwell in the Holy Land", reports the Times Online.

The Pope is to visit Jordan and Israel for a week, although he has also been invited by the Iraqi President and Prime Minister to visit their country in the hope helping the reconciliation process there.

The Pope said, "My primary intention is to visit the places made holy by the life of Jesus, and to pray at them for the gift of peace and unity for your families, and all those for whom the Holy Land and the Middle East is home.

"Among the many religious and civic gatherings which will take place over the course of the week will be meetings with representatives from the Muslim and Jewish communities with whom great strides have been made in dialogue and cultural dialogue ... May we all be people of hope. May we all be steadfast in our desire and efforts for peace."

The Tourism Minister of Israel, Stas Meseznikov, says around 10,000 pilgrims are expected to join the Pope for his visit to the Holy Land, and that a papal visit could boost Catholic tourism in Israel as it did when Pope John Paul II visited in 2000.

The Israeli government is also debating whether to give Christian holy sites in the country over to Vatican control. The country's president Shimon Peres backs the idea, while the Interior Minister Eli Yishai has expressed his opposition.

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