Pope Pledges Mideast Visit

Israeli and Palestinian youths won a firm pledge from Pope John Paul II to visit the Holy Land, a promise that had so far eluded political leaders from both sides.

Â"You know that, if God wills, I plan to go to the Holy Land on a pilgrimage tracing the stages of the history of salvation,Â" John Paul said in a written message he gave to a group of three young people Wednesday. Â"God willing, therefore, we shall have the chance to meet again on your own soil.Â"

Until now, John Paul has spoken of such a trip as a hope more than a plan.

A stop in the Holy Land -- in both Israel and Palestinian-controlled territories -- is on a proposed itinerary the pope has sketched for pilgrimages across the Middle East.

The trips could begin as early as December with a visit to Ur, the Biblical birthplace of Abraham in what is now Iraq, although no date has been fixed.

The United States and the Iraqi opposition have expressed misgivings, claiming the trip would be a propaganda coup for Iraqi Saddam Hussein. John Paul insists no political significance should be attached to any of the trips.

Three young people representing the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths met with John Paul during his general audience in St. Peter's Square. They represented the Peres Center for Peace, founded three years ago to promote peace and reconciliation among Israelis and Palestinians.

A stop in the Holy Land will be Â"a big step for us and for him,Â" said Reem Shadid, 15, a Muslim. Â"We are all waiting for him to come in March.Â"

The Vatican has never given a date, but there are expectations the trip will take place in March.

In his message, the pope encouraged the youth in their efforts at reconciliation. By the time he visits, the pope said, Â"I trust that ... you will have begun your venture and that together we will be able to see its first fruits.Â"

By Victor L. Simpson
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