Papal Visit to Holy Land in 2000 Would Be a Watershed for Many Faiths

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Sydney, Australia, may be hosting the sports spectacular of the millennium. But the Olympics could be eclipsed by the religious spectacular of the millennium. Israel's tourism minister publicly said this week that Pope John Paul II plans to go to the Holy Land in 2000. While the church refused to confirm the trip officially, Catholic sources indicated that planning is under way. If arrangements can be finalized and the pope does make his pilgrimage, the visit is expected to prompt a wave of other pilgrims to the Holy Land, which was already concerned about the millions of visitors planning to visit Israel during the coming year to mark the new millennium. "For Christians, Jews and Muslims, the pope's appearance in Jerusalem would be a reminder of what these faiths have in common, an opportunity to encourage peace and friendship between Jews and Arabs, and an occasion to forge a deeper understanding among those of all three beliefs," says TIME senior reporter Emily Mitchell.

Israelis can be expected to watch the pope's every move with particular interest. "More than any other pope," says Mitchell, "John Paul II has reached out to create closer bonds between Christians and Jews." To a nation that has witnessed the dramatic visits of old adversaries seeking peace and reconciliation -- beginning with Anwar Sadat's electrifying journey to Jerusalem -- the Pope's pilgrimage could be yet another watershed moment. However, there is also another, more political reason Israelis will be watching closely. The two holiest Christian sites are in Palestinian territory. "As of now," says TIME Jerusalem bureau chief Lisa Beyer, "visitors cannot go to these places unless they are accompanied by Israeli officials." If the pope comes, Israelis will give careful consideration to who accompanies him to these sites, lest the visit imply a degree of Palestinian nationhood that Israel is not prepared to acknowledge.