- Catholic News Service says that Pope Benedict XVI will encounter a Holy Land that has changed greatly since Pope John Paul II visited in 2000 -- characterized by Israeli-Palestinian tensions; bickering Palestinian political factions; communities divided by a 2002 separation barrier to prevent terrorist attacks, and a recent war between Israel and Hamas:
Pope Benedict will face a land torn asunder and scarred by the violence and physical barriers of the second intifada, which broke out just months after the 2000 papal visit. He will stand before people who have lost hope in the future and no longer trust their politicians, and he will see precarious economies still reeling from the effects of the intifada and feeling the sting of the current international economic downturn -- still waiting for the additional influx of pilgrims and tourists they dreamed of following the earlier papal visit. ...
Though Pope Benedict has insisted, as did Pope John Paul, that his visit is a spiritual pilgrimage and not meant as a political statement, both Israelis and Palestinians say they have expectations ranging from bringing about a renewal of the stalled peace talks, bringing an economic boost to the area with an influx of pilgrims, helping refocus international attention on the political situation and initiating a spiritual strengthening of the local Catholic faithful.
- Christian tourism to Israel has increased by 17 percent since Pope John Paul II visited nine years ago, the Israeli Tourism Ministry said on Thursday (Jerusalem Post):
... the number of Christian visitors who defined themselves as pilgrims shot up a whopping 43% over the last eight years, with more than one million in 2008 - more than half of the Christian visitors - calling themselves pilgrims.Suffice to say they're hoping for a similar response from Benedict's papal visit.
However, in an update to this story, Haaretz reports that the department has modified (and somewhat reduced) its expectations of a high turnout - "About 10,000 Christian pilgrims are expected to come to Israel in May during the visit of Pope Benedict XVI, significantly fewer than the "over 40,000" that Tourism Ministry officials spoke about less than a month ago."
- According to the Franciscan Custodians of the Holy Land, preparation for Benedict XVI's Holy Land visit is advancing the relationship between the Holy See and Israel, though formal agreements are still pending:
The article noted that although this Papal trip will not conclude the pending agreements between the Holy See and Israel, the friendly atmosphere the visit has generated is serving to advance towards that objective.
The agreements currently being negotiated, within a bilateral commission of Israeli and Vatican negotiators, will govern the legal status of the Catholic Church in that country. This follows the Fundamental Agreement, signed in 1993, which established the diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Israel.
In recent months, the committee's meetings have made such progress that it was believed the negotiations might be concluded on the occasion of the Papal visit.
- The Washington Times reports on Nazareth's competition with Jerusalem and Bethlehem for papal attention, and preparations for the visit:
"We are building new roads, expanding our electrical grid to Mount Precipice and laying pipes to convey water to the stadium," said Suheil Diab, an aide to the mayor. "There will be seats for 7,500 people and space for the more than 35,000 on the surrounding grounds."The article also mentions security concerns (a local Muslim extremist group known as "Ahbab Allah" -- "God's Beloved" -- is still smarting from having construction halted on their mosque over a decade ago); and that "at this stage, the papal schedule does not call for stops at most of the historic shrines associated with Jesus' youth in Nazareth." (The Pope will, apparently, enter the residence of the Holy Mother, located in a cave below the Basilica of the Annunciation).
A new extension of a modern highway will lead directly to the stadium atop Mount Precipice. A helicopter pad is being leveled next to the stadium and another near the Basilica of the Annunciation.
An estimated $5 million promised to the municipality by Israel's government is expected to cover the cost of 25 infrastructure projects. "The work under way is nearing completion," Mr. Diab said.
- Haaretz reports that The Jesus Trail, a Galilee path that supposedly traces the route of Jesus, will be completed in time for the visit of Pope Benedict XVI next month.
- According to YNet News, during Benedict's visit to Jerusalem, he'll take time out to visit the city's Time Elevator site, and get to inaugurate its new attraction – the Aerial Odyssey:
The Aerial Odyssey is an aerial adventure in which visitors get to fly over Israel and gain a unique new perspective as the past and present of this land are revealed.
During the journey, visitors are exposed to a variety of natural and human treasures, the likes of which cannot be found anywhere else. The ride shows the people, the places and the religions that make up the holy land.