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Papal pilgrimage heads to Bethlehem

Pope Francis arrives in Bethlehem Sunday to begin the most sensitive part of his three-day Middle East tour aimed at forging regional peace and easing an age-old rift within Christianity.

BETHLEHEM, Palestinian Territories: Pope Francis arrives in Bethlehem Sunday to begin the most sensitive part of his three-day Middle East tour aimed at forging regional peace and easing an age-old rift within Christianity.

After beginning his trip in Jordan on Saturday with an urgent appeal to end the bloodshed in Syria, the head of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics was to take his "pilgrimage of prayer" to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Although Francis himself has said it will be a "purely religious trip," both Israel and the Palestinians will be looking to use the visit to score a few political points.

The Vatican said the main reason for the visit was a meeting in Jerusalem with Bartholomew I, the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, and "to pray for peace in that land, which has suffered so much".

But ahead of the trip, the Vatican's Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin defended the Palestinians' right to a "sovereign and independent" homeland and said he hoped Francis's visit would lead to "courageous decisions" for peace.

The crowd-loving pope will drive through Bethlehem in an open-top car, raising security concerns in a region racked by political and religious strife.

In Israel, police issued restraining orders against 15 right-wing Jewish activists, barring them from sites that the pope will visit following a string of anti-Christian hate attacks.

Police with sniffer dogs on Saturday combed the narrow streets of Jerusalem's Old City, closely examining all the shops along the stone alleyways down which the pontiff will walk later on Sunday.

Although the Vatican has said the emphasis of the pope's visit is to heal a centuries-old rift between the Catholic and Orthodox worlds, every gesture he makes is likely to come under close scrutiny by both sides.

John Allen, an expert on the Vatican at the Boston Globe said the pope was likely to "charm" both sides.

"Jews like him, Muslims like him," he told AFP.

"Francis comes in with a lot of political capital. He's sort of a new Nelson Mandela, a new moral authority on the world stage.

"The question is: can he spend that moral capital to shame both sides into talking to each other? You might be able to get a public commitment to resume dialogue. It's the most we can expect."

US-led peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators collapsed amid bitter recriminations last month, ending a nine-month bid to reach a negotiated solution, with no political initiative on the horizon.

Travelling with the Argentine pontiff are two of his old friends from Buenos Aires -- Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Islamic studies professor Omar Abboud -- in a symbolic gesture of openness.

In Bethlehem, the West Bank town where Jesus was born, the pontiff will meet Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and celebrate an open-air mass with nearly 10,000 worshippers in Manger Square.

Afterwards, he will have lunch with several Palestinian families then meet children from three nearby refugee camps.

During the afternoon, he will take a short flight to Tel Aviv where he will be formally welcomed to Israel by President Shimon Peres before flying on to Jerusalem.

"I don't think the visit is going to bring the signing of a peace deal tomorrow... but I am sure that it will make a substantial contribution, because the pope respects all cultures and all religions," Peres told French daily Le Figaro.

It is inside Jerusalem's walled Old City that he will attend a special joint service with Bartholomew in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre -- venerated as the place of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection -- which is seen by the Vatican as the highlight of the visit.

Monday will see Francis meeting Jewish and Muslim leaders at two key holy sites in the Old City, as well as holding talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu which will touch on politics.

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