Pope Francis has announced that he will travel to visit the Holy Land at the end of spring, stopping off in Israel, the West Bank and Jordan from 24-26 May.
The pontiff revealed the news “in the climate of joy that is typical of the Christmas season” to the thousands gathered for his Sunday blessing.
The three-day trip, which will see Francis visit Amman, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, comes amid renewed efforts to bring about peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
It will mark 50 years since an historic meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Atengora, then the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, and will see Francis joined by the current ecumenical patriarch, Bartholomew.
The Catholic Church in the Holy Land said the visit was aimed “mainly at spreading and promoting love, cooperation and peace among all inhabitants of the region”.
But it will also be a landmark moment in the Vatican’s ongoing calls for progress towards peace in the Middle East.
In his Christmas address last month, Francis singled out the Holy Land for prayers, saying: “Bless the land where you chose to come into the world, and grant a favourable outcome to the peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Today’s announcement came just as US Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up three days of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in a new American-led bid for peace.
The Israeli foreign minister Yigal Palmor said his country was excited by Francis’s visit. “He's very welcome in Israel and will be greeted as warmly as his predecessors were,” he said.
The Palestinian news agency Wafa said President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed the visit and said he hoped it would “contribute to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinian people who aspire for freedom, justice and independence”.
Jordan's Royal Palace said the Amman leg of Francis' visit — on 24 May — would mark a “significant milestone for brotherhood and forgiveness between Muslims and Christians and consolidates the message of peace”.
Despite the geopolitical backdrop of the trip, the Catholic Church in the Holy Land insisted that the visit was aimed “mainly at spreading and promoting love, cooperation and peace among all inhabitants of the region.”
Francis will be the fourth pope to visit the Holy Land after Paul VI's landmark trip. The Argentine Jesuit was known to have made forging relations with Jews and Muslims a priority of his tenure as archbishop of Buenos Aires.
It is his only trip so far confirmed for 2014 and the second foreign trip of Francis' pontificate, following his 2013 visit to Brazil for World Youth Day.
Additional reporting by AP