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Church official: Pope Francis' trip to Israel in question because of striking diplomats

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JERUSALEM — A top Roman Catholic official in the Holy Land said Thursday that a trip to Israel by Pope Francis in late May is now in doubt because of a strike by Israeli diplomats, even as the Vatican said travel preparations were going ahead.

A cancellation of the trip could embarrass the Israeli government, which has been excitedly gearing up for the visit. It is to be just the second foreign trip for Francis since he became pope a year ago.

Latin Patriarch Fouad 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.

"If the strike will go two months, I don't think that we can make the visit to Israel," he said. Planned stops in Jordan and the West Bank during the May 24-26 trip will not be affected, he added.

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.

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

PHOTO: In this Friday, Jan. 31, 2014 photo, tourists walk past a picture of Pope Francis at the entrance of a gift shop near the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Amman, Bethlehem and Jerusalem in May 2014, but a top Roman Catholic official in the Holy Land on Thursday, March 27, 2014 said a trip to Israel by Pope Francis in late May is in peril because of a strike by Israeli diplomats. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)
In this Friday, Jan. 31, 2014 photo, tourists walk past a picture of Pope Francis at the entrance of a gift shop near the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Amman, Bethlehem and Jerusalem in May 2014, but a top Roman Catholic official in the Holy Land on Thursday, March 27, 2014 said a trip to Israel by Pope Francis in late May is in peril because of a strike by Israeli diplomats. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

Twal's warning came on the same day the Vatican released an itinerary that has Francis spending his last day of the trip in Israel. It includes visits to the Western Wall and Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, a meeting with Netanyahu and a Mass in Jerusalem.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said preparations for the trip "are continuing as planned."

He acknowledged the labor issues but said in a statement "it is hoped that formal contacts with the competent authorities can resume as soon as possible" to prepare for the trip.

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. He followed it up with an official visit to Israel in 2000 that included a stop at the Western Wall, where he famously left a handwritten plea asking forgiveness for Christian persecution.

The German-born Pope Benedict XVI paid his own visit nine years later.

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.

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PHOTO: US President Barack Obama meets with Pope Francis, Thursday, March 27, 2014 at the Vatican. Obama called himself a "great admirer" of Pope Francis as he sat down at the Vatican Thursday with the pontiff he considers a kindred spirit on issues of economic inequality. Their historic first meeting comes as Obama's administration and the church remain deeply split on issues of abortion and contraception. On the right is Msgr. Mark Miles, who was the english translator for the Pontiff.  (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
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