Israel: Pope Francis Coming for 'Everybody'


JERUSALEM, Israel -- While Israel's Tourism Ministry prepares for Sunday's arrival of Pope Francis on a two-day visit to the Holy Land, the Palestinian Authority says his decision to start in Bethlehem speaks volumes.

The Pope will fly from Amman to Bethlehem Sunday where he'll meet with P.A. chairman Mahmoud Abbas, hold a Mass and later visit a "refugee camp" to "underscore his support for the Palestinians," Arutz Sheva quoted P.A. Christian Affairs adviser Ziyyad Bandak as saying.

Bandak says the Pope will get a firsthand look at the suffering of Palestinian Arabs under the Israeli "occupation."

"This visit will help us in supporting our struggle to end the longest occupation in history," Bandak reportedly said. "I know that Israeli officials are not happy with this decision. We welcome this visit and consider it as support for the Palestinian people and confirmation from the Vatican of the need to end the occupation."

But Foreign Ministry spokesman Paul Hirschson told CBN News the Pope "is coming here to spend time with everybody."

"First of all he's starting his visit in Jordan," Hirschson said. "From there it's convenient to fly by Jordanian helicopter to Bethlehem."

"He's coming to see us. He's coming on a Christian pilgrimage," Hirschson explained, saying the focus of his visit is not political. "With all due respect to everybody's inflated egos with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this is not the focus of his visit."

"It's a wonderful thing that he's coming to visit," he continued. "Hundreds of foreign journalists and thousands of Christian pilgrims are looking forward to his visit. We don't always have to exploit every single thing."

Israel's Tourism Ministry has invested millions of shekels in preparing to host the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, saying it will increase by "tens of thousands" the number of Christian pilgrims visiting Israel.

The ministry even sponsored a competition inviting contestants to upload a 15-second video explaining why they want to visit Israel while the Pope is here.

Contest winner Adolfo Franco Picaza, 22, from Venezuela, will be the ministry's guest.

The Tourism Ministry expects the Pope's visit to boost Christian tourism by 10 percent in 2014. Christians account for 60 percent of all incoming visitors to Israel.

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