In comments made to CNA, the Israeli Ambassador to the Holy See noted that the presence of both a rabbi and a Muslim in the Pope’s delegation to the Holy Land is a milestone in interreligious relations. “For the first time in history Rabbi Skorka from Argentina, who is a friend of Pope Francis, will accompany him but also a Muslim religious leader, Imam Abbud, also from Argentina,” Dr. Zion Evrony told CNA May 20. “It is significant in the sense of interreligious dialogue. The leader of over 1 billion Catholics is visiting the Holy Land together with a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim religious leader, so certainly this brings a message of the importance of interreligious dialogue.” Rabbi Abraham Skorka is the former rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires, and Sheik Omar Abboud is the former secretary-general of the Islamic Center of Argentina. Both men collaborated closely with the Pope while he was still a cardinal in Buenos Aires. Along with the ambassador, they will accompany Pope Francis everywhere he goes during his May 24 — 26 pilgrimage to Jordan, Israel and Palestine. The fact that for the first time in history leaders of other faith traditions will be part of a papal delegation also promotes a message of peace the ambassador observed, stating that “The Pope is a man of peace, and he will bring with him a message of peace.” “Religious leaders, spiritual leaders can sometimes ease a tension between two sides of a conflict. They can create more trust and build more bridges to peace” he noted. “The message of peace that Pope Francis will bring will certainly have an impact on the atmosphere in the region.” Going on, Dr. Evrony stated that the trip will be “very significant” and of “historic importance, both for the relations between Israel and the Holy See and also for the relations between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church.” “I’m sure that this visit will strengthen the relations” he affirmed, observing how the Pope’s Holy Land pilgrimage marks the pontiff’s first official trip outside of Italy, as his 2013 visit to Rio de Janeiro was organized by retired pontiff Benedict XVI. Reflecting on the many crucial events to take place during the pilgrimage, the ambassador drew specific attention to Pope Francis’ encounter with the patriarch of Constantinople, Bartolomeo I, which is slated to take place Sunday. “From the Vatican point of view” it is “the main purpose of this visit,” he explained. In addition to their encounter, which marks the 50th anniversary of the 1964 meeting between Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, other significant events in Israel will be the pontiff’s meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres, their Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and two chief rabbis, he noted. Although “this is a pilgrimage to the holy sites and strengthening the Christian community,” Dr. Evrony explained that Pope Francis’ scheduled visits to the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial and to Mount Herzl, where he will lay a wreath on the tomb of Theodore Herzl, founder of Zionism, are also of great interreligious importance. “There is much anticipation and excitement in Israel for the visit of Pope Francis,” the ambassador observed, adding that “Israel is, regardless of the religious affiliation, expecting the visit of the Pope.” “He will be welcomed very warmly, with an open heart as a very honored guest of the State of Israel.” Everyone is very “optimistic” about the outcome of the Pope’s trip, Dr. Evrony stated, noting that it is “a historic visit that will be another milestone in the relations between Israel and the Holy See and between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people.”

Alan Holdren contributed to this piece.