by Peggy Polk VATICAN CITY (RNS)--Pope John Paul II will fly to Egypt on Thursday to visit Mount Sinai, the first stage of a long-awaited millennial pilgrimage. But as with most things connected to the turbulent Middle East, the pope's plans have become enmeshed in politics.

For the 79-year-old Roman Catholic pontiff, the three-day trip to Egypt and a visit to the Holy Land set for March 20-26 will be high points of the Jubilee Holy Year celebrating the start of the third millennium of Christianity.

Although the pope has insisted his pilgrimage will be "exclusively religious in its nature and purpose" he has been unable to avoid becoming involved in regional politics.

Iraq vetoed a papal trip to Ur of the Chaldees proposed for December, saying it could not guarantee the pope's safety and comfort while United Nations' sanctions against Baghdad remained in effect. More recently, the Vatican provoked Israel's anger Feb. 15 by signing an agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization criticizing the Jewish state's "unilateral decisions" over Jerusalem.

The Israeli government made clear, however, that it wants the pope's March visit to go ahead.

The pilgrimage will have important ecumenical and interreligious implications in a region marked by memories of Old and New Testament events, the Arab conquests, schisms between Christians, the Crusades of the Middle Ages and the wars of the 20th century.

The Egypt trip will be the 90th that John Paul has made outside Italy since he was elected pope in 1978. Because of his increasingly frail health, his schedule has been pared to the minimum, but still is an arduous one for a man suffering from Parkinson's disease.

The pope will fly to Cairo on Thursday morning, meet with President Hosni Mubarak at Cairo International Airport and pay courtesy calls on Egypt's two most important religious leaders--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 University and a Sunni Muslim leader.

On Friday, John Paul will celebrate Mass in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Egypt for Coptic Catholics before meeting with other Christian leaders in the chapel of the Major Inter-Ritual Seminary of St. Leo the Great.

Only on Saturday will the pope reach the great goal of his trip, the Monastery of St. Catherine of Sinai at the foot of Mount Sinai. The pontiff will go alone to the Church of St. Catherine in the monastery and then lead a prayer service in its Garden of Olives.

His visit to Sinai is scheduled to last less than three hours, but it is certain to be dramatic because of the weight of biblical history Mount Sinai carries.

Mount Sinai, John Paul has written, "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" (Aramaic for Calvery, the place of Jesus' crucifixtion).

The Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, Book of Exodus says it was on Mount Sinai that Moses received the revelation of God's name and where God later sealed the covenant with his people by giving Moses the Ten Commandments.

John Paul, who visited the Holy Land in 1965 when he was archbishop of the Polish city of Krakow, has talked for a number of years of his desire to return to the Middle East on a Holy Year pilgrimage to various biblical sites. He wrote of the places he hoped to visit in a letter published last June.

The pope said several years ago he wanted to hold a Holy Year meeting with Jewish and Muslim religious leaders on Mount Sinai, but the Vatican apparently was unable to arrange the highly symbolic encounter.

A Vatican source, who is an expert on the region, said the pope has not given up hope of the meeting. "It doesn't have to be on Mount Sinai this year," the cleric said. "It could happen next year at another location."

John Paul had planned to begin his "pilgrimage to the places linked to the history of salvation" with a visit to Ur of the Chaldees in southern Iraq, where the Bible says God spoke to the Prophet Abraham.

Iraq informed the Vatican in December, however, that a papal trip would be impossible because of the United Nations economic boycott and the U.S. and British-patrolled no-fly zone imposed after the 1990 Gulf War.

The pope told his weekly general audience Feb. 16 that he had wanted to "walk in the footsteps of Abraham" because Christians recognize him as their "father in faith."

Since this proved impossible, he said, he will hold "a spiritual commemoration of some of the key events of Abraham's experience" at his audience scheduled for the eve of his departure for Egypt.

"We shall follow Abraham's path and relive his experience of faith," the pope said. "This will be the beginning of my Jubilee pilgrimage to the places linked to the biblical account of God's interventions in history."

On his trip to the Holy Land in March, the pope will go to the Monastery of Mount Nebo in Jordan from where the Bible says Moses was permitted to see the Promised Land before his death, and Wadi al Karrar in the Jordan Valley, revered as the place of Jesus' baptism.

John Paul will visit Jesus' birthplace of Bethlehem, now part of the Palestinian National Authority; Nazareth, scene of the Annunciation and Jesus' childhood; and Jerusalem, where Jesus was crucified. He will hold a service for young people on the Mount of Beatitudes overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

In his letter on his hopes for a Holy Year pilgrimage, the pope said he wanted to end his travels by recalling the early church with visits to Damascus, Syria, where St. Paul was converted and Athens, Greece, where Paul delivered the speech in the Areopagus.

That trip, however, is in doubt. Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Zakka II of Antioch has said John Paul would be welcome in Damascus, but Greek Orthodox leaders have rejected a papal visit.

In this case it's not Middle East politics that's intruded, but the long history of Catholic-Orthodox disagreements.

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