00 5/8/2009 5:33 AM

Pope Benedict XVI to visit
Dome of the Rock and Western Wall


JERUSALEM, March 10 (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI will show solidarity with Jews and Muslims during his first papal trip to the Holy Land with visits to Jerusalem's Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock, the papal envoy in Jerusalem said Tuesday.

Benedict announced this week that he would visit in May. His presence could help ease the sometimes rocky relations between the Vatican and Israel, and between the Vatican and Muslims.

It will be his first official visit to the region since he became Pope in 2005.

Archbishop Antonio Franco, the papal nuncio in Jerusalem, said visits to key Jewish and Muslim holy sites would be on the Pope's agenda. The Dome of the Rock is one of Islam's most sacred shrines, and the nearby Western Wall is the holiest site where Jews are allowed to pray.

"The intent of the Holy Father's visit is to express his solidarity and closeness to the people of Israel and Palestine, and through them all the people of this region," Franco said.

Benedict will also visit Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, meet with top Palestinian and Israeli leaders and make a stop in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

The Pope will end his visit by celebrating Mass in Galilee — the area in northern Israel where Jesus lived and preached.

Franco said the Vatican has asked Israeli authorities to ease movement restrictions on Palestinian Christians from the blockaded Gaza Strip to allow them to attend parts of the pope's visit.

The papal envoy said Benedict's tour will be a religious pilgrimage, not a political mission. Still, the visit could help mend strained relations between Israel and the Roman Catholic Church.

Ties were rattled recently when Benedict tried to reinstate an excommunicated bishop who denied the Holocaust. Benedict condemned the bishop's remarks, spoke out against anti-Semitism and called off the reinstatement until the bishop satisfies his demands.

The controversy came shortly after a senior Vatican Cardinal, Renato Martino, described the Gaza Strip as a "big concentration camp" during Israel's fierce military assault on the blockaded territory in January. The offensive was meant to halt rocket fire into Israel.

The two sides also disagree over the legacy of the wartime pontiff Pius XII, who some historians say did not do everything in his power to prevent the Holocaust or limit its scope.

"We are trying to clarify the issues," Franco said.

Benedict will also meet the top Muslim official in the Holy Land, Grand Mufti Mohammed Hussein, who will accompany the pope into the Dome of the Rock shrine.

Vatican-Muslim ties were strained by a 2006 speech in which Benedict linked Islam to violence. Amid angry reactions from the Muslim world, he expressed regret for any offense caused by his remarks.

Franco said they asked Israeli authorities allow two busloads of Palestinian Christians from Gaza to attend the pope's Mass in Bethlehem.

Local Christian officials said they expected at least 40,000 people to attend the Galilee Mass, which will take place on a hilltop outside the northern Israeli city of Nazareth.

Palestinian Christians are a tiny, diminishing minority in the Holy Land, their community whittled away by low birthrates and emigration.