The upcoming visit of Pope Francis to Israel is proving to be a major headache for local Israeli security forces tasked with overseeing the pontiff’s security.
Pope Francis will begin his tour of the Middle East on Saturday when he arrives to Jordan. Immediately the next day, he leaves for the West Bank town of Bethlehem where he will then fly into Israel and stay until the evening of May 26.
The Pope has cultivated a largely popular following of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. Pope Francis is known for his desire to personally engage with followers which has caused worry among his security detail in the past.
The Middle East, known as a region of constant conflict and a hotbed of activity for religious extremists, has added an added layer of worry to those tasked with protecting the Pope.
While in the Middle East, the pontiff is planning on traveling twice in open-top cars. The first time will be in the Jordanian capital of Amman and the second in Palestinian Authority controlled Bethlehem.
Jordan hopes to show the pope that it is “an oasis of peace and stability” in a conflict-torn Middle East, a Jordanian security official told AFP. “It is very important visit for Jordan, especially with all the unrest happening around us,” he stated.
“It is the fourth visit by a pope to Jordan since 1964 and the first for Pope Francis and we are doing our best to cope with this big responsibility,” the security official stated.
A second security source confirmed that “there will be more than 500 security personnel, besides the Royal Guards, and of course security cameras.”
As his main source of transportation, the Pope will be shuttled by helicopter between Amman, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem. In the West Bank, the Pope will be protected by Palestinian police and the Palestinian presidential guard. While in Bethlehem, the Pope will visit the Basilica of the Nativity and the Dheishe refugee camp.
In December, upon announcement of his trip to the Holy Land, the Pope was called upon by PA president Mahmoud Abbas to use his trip as a propaganda move in favor of the PA and not Israel. Later that month, the Pope announced that he would be hosting a mass prayer service in Bethlehem instead of in Jerusalem.
After completion of his visit in the West Bank, the Pope will fly to Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv for an official welcoming ceremony. He will then head to Jerusalem to meet with Israeli leaders, visit holy sites, and visit Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Jerusalem police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told AFP that when the Pope reaches Jerusalem, thousands of police will be deployed throughout the city, including special undercover units. Police helicopters will be patrolling Jerusalem airspace.
While in the Old City of Jerusalem, Pope Francis will meet with Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I and visit important Christian, Jewish and Muslim holy sites including the Temple Mount, Al-Aqsa mosque, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Western Wall. Rosenfeld said that 320 security cameras will be monitoring the Pope while in the Old City.
Pope Francis is expected to stay the night in the Old City at the Latin Patriarchate. Rosenfeld said that Jerusalem police, Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service, and Italian security services arriving with the Pope are working together to provide the pontiff with the best security available.