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Pope Benedict to Visit Jerusalem, Bethlehem in May

Pope Benedict announced Sunday that he will visit Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan in May, on a trip aimed at promoting peace and unity.

Benedict's travels through the Holy Land will be the first papal visit to the region since 2000. His itinerary in early May (May 8-15) will include a stop in Amman to visit Jordan's largest mosque.

The pope said he wants to make a pilgrimage to places where Jesus lived in Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. He will pray there for unity and peace in the Middle East and for all humanity.

Israeli President Shimon Peres welcomed the Roman Catholic Church leader's decision to visit the region, and said he will accompany Benedict during the pope's time in Israel.

Relations between the Vatican and Jewish leader have been tense recently, after the pope lifted a church ban (excommunication) on a clergyman known as a denier of the Holocaust. British-born Bishop Richard Williamson has said in the past that Nazi Germany did not use gas chambers to exterminate Jews, and that he doubts the Nazis killed as many as six million Jews.

Williamson, who originally was expelled by the Catholic Church for his theological beliefs, has apologized for his remarks, but has not yet withdrawn his past comments about the Holocause, saying he needs more time to review the evidence.

The last pope to visit the Holy Land was Polish-born John Paul II, in 2000. His was the first full-scale papal visit to the region. Pope Paul VI stopped over in Israel for one day as he returned from a trip to Jordan in 1964, at a time when Israel and the Vatican did not have diplomatic relations.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.