VATICAN CITY--Pope John Paul II will start a series of Holy Year pilgrimages to the Middle East next month by visiting Cairo and the believed biblical site of Mount Sinai, the Vatican confirmed Thursday.

The Vatican issued the program for a three-day trip to Egypt on Feb. 24-26, which will precede the pope's already announced pilgrimage in March to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

It will be John Paul's 90th journey outside Italy since he became the Roman Catholic pontiff in 1978. It could offer some of the most dramatic moments of his long and active pontificate.

At the heart of the pilgrimage will be a visit, scheduled to last only two hours and 50 minutes, to the tradiional site of Mount Sinai, where the Bible says Moses first received the revelation of God's name and later the Ten Commandments.

The Vatican said the pope would fly from Cairo to the Sinai on Feb. 26, make a private visit to the Church of St. Catherine in the Monastery of St. Catherine of the Sinai, and lead a prayer service in the Garden of Olives at the foot of Mount Sinai.

But the pope apparently has been disappointed in the wish he expressed in the past to mark the start of the third millennium of Christianity by meeting on Mount Sinai with Jewish and Muslim leaders.

Writing in June of his hope to make a "pilgrimage to the places linked to the history of salvation," the 79-year-old pontiff said Mount Sinai is not only a symbol of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt but also of Christ's message of salvation, culminating in his crucifixion.

Mount Sinai, sometimes called Mount Horeb in the Bible, "in a way speaks of the entire mystery of the Exodus, the enduring paradigm of the new Exodus, which was to be fully accomplished on Golgotha," the pope said.

John Paul said he hoped to begin his Holy Year pilgrimages with a visit to Ur of the Chaldees in southern Iraq where the Hebrew Bible says the Patriarch Abraham "heard the word of the Lord."

But the Iraqi government informed the Vatican last month that it could not organize a papal visit at present because of the United Nations economic embargo and the no-fly zone established by the United States and Britain after the Gulf War.

The pope will begin his visit to Egypt by meeting with President Hosni Mubarak on his arrival at the Cairo International Airport and paying courtesy calls on Shenouda III, the Coptic pope of Alexandria and patriarch of the See of St. Mark, and Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, the grand sheik of Al Azhar and a Sunni Muslim leader.

On Feb. 25, he will celebrate Mass in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Egypt and hold an ecumenical meeting with other Christian leaders in the chapel of the Major Inter-Ritual Seminary of St. Leo the Great.

The pope will fly back to Cairo and depart for Rome immediately after his visit to Mount Sinai the next day.

Vatican sources have said that security will be especially tight for the visit to Egypt because of clashes between the majority Muslims and the Coptic Christian minority and terrorist attacks on tourists in the recent past.

The Vatican announced Jan. 12 that John Paul will visit the Holy Land March 20-26.

The pope will go first to the Monastery of Mount Nebo in Jordan from where the Bible says Moses saw the Promised Land before his death and will visit Wadi al Karrar in the Jordan Valley, which is revered as the place of Jesus' baptism.

John Paul will celebrate Mass in the Amman sports stadium, in Bethlehem, Nazareth and in Jerusalem at the site of the Last Supper and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. He also will hold a service for young people on the Mount of Beatitudes overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

The pope will meet with King Abdullah of Jordan, President Ezer Weizman and Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel and Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority, and with heads of other Christian churches in the region.

He will visit Judaism's Western Wall and the Islamic Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

Another pilgrimage that John Paul has said he hoped to make is still uncertain. He said in June he wanted to recall the early church by visiting Damascus where St. Paul was converted and Athens where Paul delivered the speech in the Areopagus.

Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Zakka II of Antioch has said the pope would be welcome in Damascus, but Greek Orthodox leaders have rejected a papal visit.

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