VATICAN CITY — The leader of the Catholic Church will be accompanied by a rabbi and a Muslim leader on a trip to the Middle East this month, the Vatican said Thursday, hailing Pope Francis’ symbolic gesture as “formidable.”
Abraham Skorka and Omar Abboud, both based in Buenos Aires, are longtime friends of the Argentina-born pontiff. Skorka is the leader of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary while Abboud leads the Institute for Interreligious Dialogue.
By taking them along, Francis is sending “a formidable message,” namely “good interreligious dialogue is a normal part of the holy father’s way of life and of presenting himself,” said Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
Official papal delegations have never included members of other religions.
Francis is to visit Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Israel from May 24-26. The main purpose of the trip is to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and Eastern Orthodox Church leader Patriarch Athenagoras.
Skorka is to join the papal party May 25 in Bethlehem because he will observe the Shabbat the previous day while Abboud will be alongside the pope from May 24 when Francis is set to arrive in Amman, Lombardi said.
Despite usual security concerns, the pope is not planning to use armored cars and will ride an open-top jeep to celebrate Masses in an Amman stadium and in Bethlehem’s Manger Square.
Lombardi expressed the Vatican’s “obvious condemnation” of recent acts of anti-Christian vandalism in Israel but said there were “no grounds to doubt” the papal trip “would not take place in an absolutely serene manner.”
During the trip, Francis is likely to renew calls for peace in Syria and between Israelis and Palestinians, condemn the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, urge Christian unity and reach out to other religions.
Francis is set to meet Athenagoras’ successor, Patriarch Bartholomew I, sign a common declaration and jointly recite Our Father prayers in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem — an unprecedented gesture of reconciliation between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.
In Israel, Francis is to visit the Wailing Wall and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Center. He will not celebrate a public Mass in the country, but in a first for a visiting pontiff, he will lay flowers at the tomb of Zionist movement founder Theodor Herzl.