Pope Francis to Highlight Christian Unity in Holy Land
JERUSALEM, Israel -- A historic trip is underway for the leader of the world's more than 1 billion Catholics. Pope Francis is making his first visit to the Holy Land.
At the end of an open-air Mass in the biblical town of Bethlehem on Sunday, the Pope invited the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to the Vatican to pray for peace next month.
The offices of the Israeli and Palestinian presidents are confirming that they have accepted the invitation to visit together.
On the first stop of his three-day tour of the region, the Pope visited Jordan Saturday. He praised Jordan for the "serene coexistence" enjoyed by Christians and Muslims there, and called for greater protections for minority Christians across the region.
Since becoming Pope, Francis has set a new tone for openness. From selfies to clown noses, one report says he's taken the papacy out of the palace and to the streets.
"I think he has taken the world by surprise because he's been so direct, so unapologetic," Rev. David Neuhaus, Vatican media coordinator, said.
"He is full of joy. He seems to love God and all of God's creatures," he added.
Pope Francis will bring that openness to Jerusalem on May 25-26. It's the third papal visit to the Holy Land since the year 2000, following stops by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict.
Watch Pope Francis in the Holy Land LIVE below, beginning Monday @ 8:15 a.m. from Jerusalem (1:15 a.m. ET.)
The main theme of Pope Francis' trip will be Christian unity, and the major event will be a meeting with Bartholomew, the patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church. The meeting is meant to send a message:
"That our future is really to be united as Christians. We all stand in front of that empty tomb and we all affirm that He is risen. And from that joint witness we should now work harder and harder toward what Jesus Himself wanted and that is that we be one," Rev. Neuhaus said.
Some Jewish leaders say the visit builds on the growing relationships between the Jewish people and the Vatican.
"The last three popes have been unqualified friends of the Jewish people. Now we have a pope who as a cardinal was known to have had such close relationships with the Jewish community in Buenos Aires," Rabbi David Rosen, director of Inter-Religious Relations for the American Jewish Committee, said.
"There's never ever been a pope who's had such intimate experience with the Jewish community," he continued.
Pope Francis will also visit the Western Wall and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and will meet with Israel's president and prime minister.
With persecution of Christians throughout the Middle East on the rise, Israel wants to send its own message.
"Christians are welcome in Israel, either as visitors, as pilgrims, as friends, as residents, of course as full citizens of this country," Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said.
"And through this welcome message we would like to emphasize the values of tolerance, of understanding, and of dialogue," he added.
Pope Francis won't be in the Holy Land long, but many hope the good generated lasts a long time.
"I think what he'd like to accomplish is that the Catholic church and the whole of the Christian world is an element in this part of the world that really preaches the Gospel of Good News," Rev. Neuhaus said.