Pope Francis says this weekend’s trip to the Holy Land is “strictly religious” — “[a] pilgrimage of prayer,” he called it — but it will also be a huge political and even physical challenge for him.
Starting on Saturday, Francis, 77, will visit three separate lands — Jordan, the Palestinian Territories and Israel.
In a little more than 48 hours, he will say two Masses; give 13 speeches; have meetings with dignitaries and refugees; and greet thousands of people in several motorcades.
It will be a grueling journey for a man who lost part of his lung as a boy. And there have been some concerns about Francis’ health. He canceled several events in recent months because of fatigue or illness.
In a stunning move, he will ride in an open car, unprotected by bulletproof glass, during the trip.
The Vatican flag, raised over a Palestinian refugee camp alongside the Palestinian flag, is a sign that Pope Francis will inevitably be drawn into the old conflicts here.
“This is the cross that we bear as Palestinians,” said John Hanna of the Holy Land Ecumenical Foundation.
Staying clear of politics will be one thing for the pontiff but there will be no avoiding a lockdown security operation currently in Jerusalem.
Shops throughout the old city will be shut down and sealed. The owners are not happy and said the pope’s visit was bad for business.
“We’re not allowed to open the stores,” Adan Dakkar said.
But Pope Francis will be trying to break through the political and security barriers to reach people with a message of hope.