5 issues facing Pope Francis in the Holy Land

Pope Francis prays in front of the Jordan river in Bethany beyond the Jordan River, the site of Christ's baptism, west of Amman, Jordan, on May 24, 2014. - PHOTO: EPA
Pope Francis prays in front of the Jordan river in Bethany beyond the Jordan River, the site of Christ's baptism, west of Amman, Jordan, on May 24, 2014. - PHOTO: EPA

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Pope Francis's first visit to the Holy Land as head of the Roman Catholic Church is fraught with potential pitfalls but will see him in his element as the "people's pope" and guardian of the downtrodden.

Here are five issues the Argentinian pontiff will encounter during his visit to the Palestinian Territories and Israel:

1. Israeli-Palestinian relations

The Vatican has dubbed this trip a "pilgrimage of prayer", but Francis's every word and gesture will be scrutinised, particularly following the collapse last month of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and his call on Friday for a "just and lasting solution to the conflict".

His decision to fly by helicopter to Bethlehem from Jordan without passing through Israel has ruffled diplomatic feathers, as has the Vatican's description of the Palestinian Territories as "the State of Palestine".

He may hope to appease Israeli critics by being the first pope to place flowers on Mount Herzl, named after the founder of Zionism.

2. Rivalries between Christian groups

Bridge-building Francis has appointed himself mediator between bickering Christians on this trip, which marks the 50th anniversary of a historic embrace in Jerusalem between Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras - the first meeting of Catholic and Orthodox leaders since the 11th century Great Schism.

It's a tough act to follow. Francis will pray with Patriarch Bartholomew I and representatives of other branches of Christianity in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, venerated as the site where Jesus was crucified, which may result in a declaration of good faith.

3. Control of holy sites

The Vatican and Israel have been at odds over taxes and management of key holy sites in Jerusalem for decades, and the highly-charged issue over rights has led to protests by ultra-orthadox Jews in the run-up to the visit.

Francis's plan to hold a mass at the Cenacle - the reputed scene of Jesus's last supper - has infuriated Jews who revere the site as the tomb of King David and fear Israel is planning to give the Vatican sovereignty.

4. Christian relations with Jews and Muslims

As archbishop of Buenos Aires, the Argentine pontiff boasted ties to the Jewish and Muslim communities which he is keen to export to the wider world, and he has invited two old friends with him on the trip to help - Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim professor Omar Abboud.

He may be hoping to repair damage done by his predecessor Benedict XVI who caused uproar when he quoted a mediaeval description of Islam as "evil" in a speech, and reinstated an archaic prayer for the conversion of Jews.

5. Security concerns in Israel

After a spate of hate crimes against Christians and Muslims by extremist Jews in Jerusalem, Francis may have to tone down the crowd pleasing moves.

Thousands of policemen and undercover cops will be deployed around the city, while in Bethlehem he will be protected by the Palestinian presidential guard, including female agents trained by French special forces.

Nonetheless, the "people's pope" - who has shunned bullet-proof vehicles in favour of open-topped cars - risks proving a headache for security forces if he employs his knack for ditching his agents for some spontaneous mingling with excitable pilgrims.