Pope Francis is to visit biblical sites in Israel in May, his first trip to the Holy Land as pontiff and only the fourth by a pope since biblical times.
He will also be visiting Jordan and the Palestinian Authority during his trip. All three governments welcomed the papal visit.
The May 24-26 trip to Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Amman will mark the 50th anniversary of a historic trip to the region by Pope Paul VI. Pope John Paul II visited the region in 2000 and Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.
After decades of reluctance by the Vatican to recognize the Jewish state, the Polish-born John Paul II forged formal relations in 1993, following it up with an official visit to Israel in 2000 that included stops at the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem and at the Western Wall, where he famously left a handwritten plea asking forgiveness for Christian persecution.
Francis' Middle East trip is the only papal trip confirmed so far for 2014 and the second foreign trip of Francis' pontificate, following his 2013 visit to Brazil for World Youth Day.
In Jerusalem, Israeli Foreign Ministry Spokesman Yigal Palmor said Francis "will be greeted as warmly as his predecessors were."
The three-day visit in May underscores Francis' close ties to the Jewish community, his outreach to Muslims and the Vatican's longstanding call for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. It will hold major importance for relations among Christians as well because it will include a meeting in Jerusalem with the spiritual head of the world's Orthodox Christians, as well as Anglican and Protestant leaders.
As archbishop of Buenos Aires, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio -- now Pope Francis -- made interreligious dialogue a top priority, hosting an annual interfaith ceremony in the Argentine capital's cathedral to promote religious harmony and writing a book on faith with his good friend, Rabbi Abraham Skorka.
Francis' full itinerary hasn't been released, but Skorka said he hopes the pope will stop at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray in Jerusalem.
Francis, who has made many appeals for peace in the Middle East since his election in March, announced the trip to thousands of people gathered in St. Peter's Square for his Sunday address, just as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up three days of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in a new U.S. bid for peace. He had been invited to visit by both President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Many key biblical sites are in Israel's Galilee region, in Bethlehem, revered as the birthplace of Jesus, and in Jerusalem, where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built over the spot where Jesus is said to have been buried.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators resumed direct peace negotiations in late July after three years of stalemate. The Vatican has urged both sides to make "courageous and determined" decisions to move closer to peace, with the help of the international community.
Francis, who defined his trip as a "pilgrimage of prayer," said he would hold an inter-faith meeting in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre together with Bartholomew I, the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople.
Bartholomew is the spiritual leader of the some 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide.
Francis made the announcement on the exact 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI's meeting in Jerusalem with Bartholomew's predecessor, Athenagoras, the first meeting of the leaders of western and eastern Christianity since they were divided by the Great Schism of 1054.
The meeting between Bartholomew and Francis could also pave the way for an historic encounter between Francis and Kirill, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, the largest and most influential in world Orthodoxy.
There have been signs of a general warming between the western and eastern branches of Christianity, and Francis fuelled hopes of further reconciliation in November when he met Russian President Vladimir Putin, the first Kremlin leader to publicly profess religious faith since the 1917 revolution.
Representatives of Anglican and Protestant churches, which split from Rome in the 16th century, are also expected to attend the Jerusalem meeting in May.
The Catholic Church in the Holy Land said the visit was aimed "mainly at spreading and promoting love, cooperation and peace among all inhabitants."