Pope Francis to visit Holy Land in May

Pope Francis addresses the crowd from the window of the apostolic palace in Vatican City Pope Francis made the announcement during his weekly Sunday blessing

Pope Francis has announced his first trip as pontiff to the Holy Land, from 24 May to 26 May.

He will visit Jerusalem, Bethlehem in the West Bank, and the Jordanian capital, Amman.

He made the announcement during his weekly Sunday blessing in Vatican City.

The visit is so far his only foreign trip planned for 2014. He said he would hold a meeting with the representatives of all Christian Churches in the Middle East in Jerusalem.

His pilgrimage "in the footsteps of Jesus Christ" has a double significance, says the BBC's David Willey in Rome.

Not only will he be making a important gesture of goodwill towards the Orthodox churches which separated from Rome just over 1,000 years ago, but he will be making an important political statement as he wants to encourage the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, our correspondent says.

The Pope will be celebrating Masses not only in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which is in Palestinian territory, but also in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem built over the site where Jesus Christ was reputedly buried after the crucifixion, with the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I.

The Pope was invited to visit the Holy Land by Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators resumed direct peace negotiations last summer after three years of stalemate. Pope Francis has made many appeals for peace in the Middle East since being elected in March.

"In the climate of joy typical of this Christmas period, I would like to announce that from 24 to 26 May, God willing, I will carry out a pilgrimage to the Holy Land," he told crowds gathered in St Peter's Square.

The date of his announcement - Sunday 5 January - was significant, as it marked the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople in 1964, he said.

That visit was the first ever by a head of the Catholic Church.

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