BEN GURION AIRPORT, May 11 – Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Israel on Monday on the latest leg of his Holy Land pilgrimage, appealing for religious reconciliation and Middle East peace.
The pontiff touched down at Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv shortly after 0800 GMT on what is likely to be the most delicate part of his tour, where he was greeted by senior Israeli officials and top religious leaders.
Security-obsessed Israel is laying on stringent measures for the trip under "Operation White Robe", with tens of thousands of law enforcement officers deployed, entire sections of Jerusalem to be shut down and Israeli air space to be closed for the pope’s arrival.
But with Israel-Vatican relations strained, the German-born Benedict is not expected to receive the warmth that greeted his predecessor John Paul II on a landmark Holy Land visit nine years ago.
Israel is angered over Benedict’s backing the beatification of controversial Nazi-era pope Pius XII and lifting the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying British bishop.
The pontiff flew in from Jordan for a five-day pilgrimage in Israel and the Palestinian territories that will see him follow in the footsteps of Jesus and visit Jewish and Muslim holy sites.
His trip is a mainly pastoral visit aimed at encouraging the dwindling Christian population to stay in the Holy Land, as well as promoting peace and inter-faith dialogue in a conflict-ridden region sacred to the world’s three main monotheistic religions.
In Amman, he renewed his appeal for religious tolerance between Christians and Muslims.
"I would like to encourage all Jordanians, whether Christian or Muslim, to build on the firm foundations of religious tolerance that enable the members of different communities to live together in peace and mutual respect," he said.
On this leg of the tour, he will meet senior Israeli and Palestinian leaders, top Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious officials, and Palestinian refugees living in the shadow of Israel’s controversial separation barrier near the spot where Jesus is believed to have been born in Bethlehem.
The Palestinians hope to use his visit to highlight their plight, with the West Bank still under Israeli occupation and Gaza in ruins from Israel’s devasting war on the territory at the start of the year.
Among his first stops in Israel will be the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, where he will lay a wreath in memory of the six million Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II.
But he will pointedly not visit the area of the memorial where a caption under a photo of Pius XII says the war-time pope failed to protest against the Holocaust — a stance that has angered the Vatican which disputes the claim.
Israel has pumped about 10 million dollars (7.5 million euros) into preparations for the visit, but the unbridled enthusiasm that greeted Pope John Paul II’s historic trip in 2000 — the first by a pontiff since Israel and the Vatican established diplomatic ties in 1993 — is missing this time around.
Benedict unleashed a torrent of criticism in January when he lifted the excommunication of Holocaust-denying British bishop Richard Williamson and three other ultra-conservative bishops in what he called a "discreet gesture of mercy."
There is also concern over the Pius beatification and Benedict’s membership of the Hitler Youth, although he has said he was enrolled against his will after membership became compulsory in 1941.
Over the past few months, hectic preparations have gone on ahead of the visit.
In Nazareth, dozens of earthmovers have been tearing up a flank of Mount Precipice where the pope will give a mass and at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Franciscan monks closed down their chapel to paint the peeling ceiling.
In the Aida refugee camp at the gates of Bethlehem, residents hope to use the visit to attract the world’s attention to Israel’s controversial eight-metre (25-foot) high concrete wall towering above much of the city.
"Welcome Pope in Aida Camp," was the slogan daubed in English on the imposing structure.
The pope is also expected to meet the parents of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli serviceman who has been held by Gaza militants since June 2006.
Hours before the pope’s arrival, Israeli police closed down a Palestinian press centre in annexed east Jerusalem, where the Palestinians hope to establish the capital of their promised state, but where Israel forbids all official activity by the Palestinian Authority.