VATICAN CITY - Given the Holy Land's long and complex history of military, religious and cultural conflict, the run-up to Pope Francis' May 24-26 pilgrimage was inevitably marked by fears it would be marred by controversy — or worse.

Pope Francis will meet with a group of sex abuse victims for the first time in June, he told reporters May 26.

JERUSALEM - The Pope had a simple plan as he set out for the Holy Land with a rabbi and a Muslim sheik in tow. But simple plans can be difficult to execute.

JERUSALEM - Pope Francis dedicated his final hours in Jerusalem to time with local Catholics, reminding them that despite difficulties, God is always by their side.

BETHLEHEM - As workers continue to assemble the stage on which Pope Francis will celebrate Mass in Manger Square, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew visited the city of Jesus' birth, leading a procession of Orthodox bishops, priests and officials from the Palestinian Authority into the Church of the Nativity.

AMMAN, Jordan - Pope Francis began a densely packed visit to the Holy Land with a call for religious freedom in the Middle East, including respect for the right to change one's religion.

AMMAN, Jordan - Celebrating Mass on his first day in the Holy Land, Pope Francis said hope for peace in a region torn by sectarian conflicts comes from faith in God.

Pope Francis was barely off the plane in Amman, Jordan when he began to take on the hardest and most delicate issues in the Middle East – including refugees.

AMMAN, Jordan - Jordan's powerful and marginalized joined together at the banks of the River Jordan to welcome Pope Francis at the site believed to be where Jesus was baptized.

BETHLEHEM - Come Sunday morning about 9,000 Christians who have been granted tickets will form Pope Francis' congregation on Manger Square in Bethlehem. Around, above and behind them will be as many as 800 journalists.

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BETHLEHEM, West Bank - A long line of cars trailed down the road next to the Church of the Nativity as Franciscan Father Ibrahim Faltas helped coordinate the placement of the electricity generator for the May 25 papal Mass.

I have been living this last week in a convent with habited nuns who describe themselves as semi-contemplative. They are Bridgettine Sisters, a 20th century American revival of a Medieval Swedish order.

The “principle purpose” of the May 24-26 visit of Pope Francis to the Holy Land is not a conventional pilgrimage, as conducted by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. It is to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the meeting between Pope Paul VI and the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I.

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BETHLEHEM - Catholic priests in the Palestinian Territories want Pope Francis to press Israel to allow greater freedom of movement, especially access to holy sites in Jerusalem, and they expect the issue to be addressed when the Pope meets with Israeli leaders in Jerusalem on May 26.

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