Church official: Pope's trip to Israel in doubt

JERUSALEM (AP) A top Roman Catholic official in the Holy Land on Thursday said a trip to Israel by Pope Francis in late May is now in doubt because of a strike by Israeli diplomats.

The warning issued by Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal threatened to embarrass the Israeli government, which has been excitedly gearing up for the visit by the new pontiff in recent months. It is to be just the second foreign trip for Francis since he became pope a year ago.

Twal, the top Catholic clergyman in the region, told reporters in Jerusalem that he was hopeful that the trip would go on as planned. But he warned that if the diplomats' strike continues, Israel may be removed from the itinerary. He said planned stops in Jordan and the West Bank during the May 24-26 trip will not be affected.

"If the strike will go two months, I don't think that we can make the visit to Israel," he said. "But for sure the visit will be done in Jordan and Palestine."

He said the Israeli government has assured the church that the trip will not be disrupted. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office declined comment.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry coordinates all visits by foreign dignitaries, handling everything from logistics to protocol. A diplomat said that another government ministry could theoretically take over this work, but that it would be difficult because of the lack of familiarity with procedures and standards. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the strike.

The Foreign Ministry went on strike this week, demanding higher salaries and better work conditions. The strike has closed Israel's more than 100 embassies and consulates for the first time. Diplomats had already reduced operations in recent weeks in a prelude to the strike. Among their demands are cost-of-living adjustments and protecting the jobs and conditions of diplomats' spouses who give up careers when their families are sent abroad.

Francis, an Argentine Jesuit, will be the fourth pope to visit the Holy Land. The first was Paul VI's landmark visit in 1964. Francis' visit reflects warming relations between the Vatican and Israel in recent decades, after centuries of strained ties between the Catholic and Jewish faiths.

In 1965, the Vatican rejected some 2,000 years of Catholic teachings that Jews were collectively responsible for the death of Christ.

After decades of reluctance by the Vatican to recognize the Jewish state, the Polish-born John Paul II forged formal relations in 1993, following it up with an official visit to Israel in 2000 that included stops at the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem and at the Western Wall, where he famously left a handwritten plea asking forgiveness for Christian persecution.

The German-born Pope Benedict XVI followed up nine years later with his own visit.

One sticking point in relations is the legacy of Pope Pius. Critics have long contended that Pope Pius, who was pope from 1939 to 1958, could have done more to stop the Holocaust, when 6 million Jews were killed.