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June 23, 2017

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Tense Middle East heightens security for Pope Francis visit

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.

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.

Old City sites he will visit include 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.

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.

Despite the tight security, there will still be the "possibility for this spontaneous connection with the people" that is so typical of the Argentinean pope, said Father David Neuhaus, who represents Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel.

"I am quite certain that these moments will be powerful images that will fill the hearts and minds of the faithful and those observing," he said.

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