JERUSALEM: Pope Francis’s pilgrimage to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories is likely to prove a major headache for local forces tasked with his security.
The pontiff’s first stop will be Jordan, where he arrives on Saturday. The following day, he travels to the West Bank city of Bethlehem, then flies to Israel for a state welcome, continuing to Jerusalem, where he will stay until Monday evening. Exacerbating the challenges of securing the head of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in a region that is a hotbed of religious extremism is this pope’s constant desire to engage with followers, which has caused concern to his security detail in the past.
This time, the pope will travel twice in open-top cars — first in the Jordanian capital Amman and again in Bethlehem. “This pope is a big problem for security,” said Father David Neuhaus, who represents Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel, recalling how, on his first day as pope, Francis broke away from his guards to mingle with people. “He’ll do his best to be a very heartwarming and joyful problem here as well,” Neuhaus told reporters in Jerusalem last week.
For Jordan, the aim is to show that the Hashemite kingdom is “an oasis of peace and stability” in the strife-torn Middle East, a security official said, referring to the conflict in neighbouring Syria. “It is a very important visit for Jordan, especially with all the unrest happening around us,” he told AFP. Beside the Royal Guards, there will be “more than 500 security personnel” deployed, another security source said. On arrival, Francis will meet King Abdullah II, then celebrate mass at a sports stadium in the capital that will be attended by tens of thousands of people. There, he will take a turn in an open car.
For the most part, the pope will be shuttled between his three stops by helicopter, flying from Amman to Bethlehem, then on to Tel Aviv and from there to Jerusalem. In Bethlehem, where he arrives early Sunday, his movements will be secured by around 3,000 members of the Palestinian security forces who will be deployed in three concentric circles, the innermost composed of rooftop sharpshooters. A third of that number would be from the elite presidential guard of Mahmud Abbas, guard spokesman Ghassan Nimr told AFP.
Among them would be guardswomen trained by France’s National Gendarmerie Intervention Group, a special operations unit, he said. “We will make every effort not only to protect the pope but also to make his visit pleasurable and allow him to get his message to the people,” security service spokesman Adnan Damiri said. When he gets to Jerusalem after an official welcome at Tel Aviv airport, more than 8,000 police will be deployed in and around the city, among them special and undercover units, a spokesman said.
In the Old City, where Francis is to meet Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, there are 320 security cameras. Other Old City sites he will visit are the flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque compound, Islam’s third holiest site and venerated by Jews as the site where their First and Second Temples stood. He will also visit the Western Wall, the holiest site at which Jews can pray. He will spend the night at the residence of Vatican ambassador, Papal Nuncio Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto in annexed east Jerusalem.
Israeli police have heightened security in recent weeks following a wave of hate crimes by extremist Jews, but police officials say there have been no concrete warnings of any specific threat against the pope. During the visit, least 15 Jewish extremists suspected of planning disruptions will either be under house arrest or subject to orders distancing them from sensitive areas.
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