Israel Prepares for Huge Papal Mass in Galilee

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Less than two weeks before Pope John Paul II is scheduled to visit the Holy Land, the Israeli police and a major parastatal corporation are working day and night to prepare for a giant papal mass overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

Commander of Special Police Units, Brigadier-General David Tsur, said on Wednesday that, although preparations for the Pope's visit had been underway for six months, full responsibility "to produce the visit, infrastructure and protocol," was only transferred to the police three weeks ago.

Tsur was briefing reporters in Jerusalem. As many as 2,000 journalists, cameramen and photographers are expected to cover the week-long pilgrimage in Jordan, Israel and the PA.

The government decided to take over preparations for the huge Mass at Korazim "as a government ceremony," Tsur said, because the churches would never have been able to complete the preparations necessary to safeguard the Pope and the 100,000 worshippers expected to participate.

Although church officials selected the site for the Mass, the director-general of Israel's Electric Corporation, Rafi Peled, was appointed to oversee preparation of the area. Peled was recently responsible for preparations for Israel's transition to the year 2000.

A platform of more than 4,000 square feet has been built overlooking the Mount of Beatitudes, the traditional site of the Sermon on the Mount. The Pope will address the crowd from the platform.

The event will be the largest ever of its kind in Israel. About half of the expected participants will be teenagers from around the world and another 2,500 will be Vatican dignitaries.

The narrow, winding two-lane roads that service the area will be closed and parking lots will provide space for the 2,000 buses expected to ferry pilgrims to the site.

Operation "Old Friend," as preparations for the Papal visit have been code named, is the "most complicated, largest and sophisticated VIP protection" that the state has ever undertaken, Tsur said, exceeding that given to President Clinton during official visits.

More than 18,000 policemen and 4,000 soldiers will be on duty during the week, Tsur said, but he confirmed that police had no specific intelligence warning about anyone wanting to harm the Pope.

Israel has been on a heightened alert for the past week - and will remain so until after the Pontiff's trip - after security services raided a terrorist hideout in an Israeli Arab city, killing four Hamas terror cell members and arresting a fifth. Security forces believe the cell had intended to carry out a massive, simultaneous suicide attack in five places at once.

The Pope will be in Israel for five days and five nights, traveling from city to city and to the Palestinian Authority and back again by Black Hawk helicopter and returning each evening to sleep in Jerusalem.

Unlike Clinton, he will not move quickly from meeting to meeting, but take his time, visiting sites and be seen by the people.

It is only the second ever visit by a Pope to the Holy Land. The first took place in 1964 prior to the Vatican's recognition of the State of Israel.

Although the visit has been billed as a private spiritual pilgrimage, it is bound to have political implications. John Paul II will meet with Israeli chief rabbis, the Islamic mufti of Jerusalem as well as with President Ezer Weizman, Prime Minister Ehud Barak and PA Chairman Yasser Arafat.