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Pope Francis blesses faithful as he arrives in St. Peter's Square for the weekly general audience at the Vatican on May 21, 2014. / Alessandra Tarantino, AP

JERUSALEM - The Jewish friend who will be accompanying Pope Francis on his pilgrimage Saturday to the Holy Land said the pope "values the significance of the state of Israel and the land of Israel for the Jewish people."

Rabbi Abraham Skorka, who expects to pray with Pope Francis at the Western Wall on Monday, noted that the pope will be laying a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl, whom Israelis call the father of Zionism, the movement for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the biblical Land of Israel.

"This is a meaningful act," he said.

During the Israeli leg of his trip, the pope will also visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, meet with the Chief Rabbinate as well as President Shimon Peres, and hold a private meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Skorka, the rector of the Latin American rabbinic seminary in Buenos Aires, told journalists at the Jerusalem Press Club that he hopes Israelis, many of whom have a deep mistrust of the Roman Catholic Church after centuries of Jewish persecution, will welcome the pope "with open arms."

Despite the pope's strong ties to the Argentine Jewish community and appreciation for Judaism, which he cultivated during his years as the amicable archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis will maintain a policy of "total balance" when it comes to Israelis and Palestinians, the rabbi predicted.

In addition to meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Pope Francis will celebrate Mass in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity and meet Palestinian children at the Dehaishe refugee camp.

In Jordan, the pope will lead a Mass and meet with Syrian refugees displaced by the civil war.

The pope and the rabbi will be joined on their pilgrimage by another good friend, Islamic studies professor Omar Abboud, who is expected to accompany the pope to the Al Aqsa mosque complex, where they will meet the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.

Skorka said he probably will not visit the mosque itself because it is located on the Temple Mount (what Arabs call the Haram al-Sharif), the most sacred place in Judaism - a venue many Jews consider too holy to visit.

The rabbi believes the pope's decision to bring along his two old friends "is perhaps a sign he wants to show the world that it is possible to work together and hold a dialogue. He is a man who breaks the status quo."

Despite being of different faiths, he said, "we share many spiritual attitudes. Maybe we can dial down the level of hate" in the Middle East.

"This is a very delicate trip," Skorka acknowledged. "It's a difficult region, with all the differing factors in the Middle East."

But if anyone can make a difference, the rabbi said, the pope can.

"My dear friend is a courageous person. I know him. I can attest to his courage."



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Pope Francis to visit Israel, West Bank

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