Israeli President Reuven Rivlin departed Wednesday on his first official visit to Rome and the Vatican at the invitation Pope Francis.
Speaking just before his flight, Rivlin hailed Francis as a friend of Israel and the Jewish people, and said he was hopeful that relations between Israel and the Vatican would strengthen.
"I leave now to meet with a leader who is a true friend of the State of Israel, and of the Jewish people," he said. "Pope Francis is an inspirational leader who believes in dialogue between different faiths and whose activities and statements are aimed at the promotion of this dialogue.
"He is an emissary of reconciliation and compassion in his endeavors for the sake of humanity, and I am greatly looking forward to our upcoming meeting. I am in no doubt that this meeting – just as my meeting with the Italian President – will be fruitful and productive, and will be an important step toward furthering the successful cooperation between us, and strengthening the solid relationship between our two countries."
Rivlin's trip comes as the Vatican attempts to ward off Palestinian attempts to drag it into a diplomatic confrontation with Israel at the United Nations. The Palestinian Authority – which along with the Vatican has "observer state" status – is pushing for both their flags to be flown at the UN headquarters in New York, contrary to existing protocol.
Relations between Israel and the Vatican were strained earlier this year when it recognized the Palestinian Authority as an independent state of "Palestine".
The President will be received at an official welcoming ceremony on Thursday morning at the Vatican, after which he will hold a private meeting with the Pope.
According to the President's Office, the two will discuss "the need for dialogue between the peoples of the Middle East, and between all those of different faiths."
The President will express to the Pope the importance that the State of Israel places on the preservation of freedom of religion for the different faiths in Israel, and will update the Pope on his visit to the Christian sites in the Jordan Valley last week, which were the subject of an initiative by the Israeli security forces, together with the Nature Reserves Authority, aimed at developing and preserving the area around the traditional baptism site, to enable greater access for the many thousands of Christian pilgrims and visitors each year.
Following that meeting, the President will meet with the Prime Minister of the Vatican and the President of Italy, before going on to address a special meeting with members of the Jewish community in the Great Synagogue in Rome’s old Jewish quarter, with the attendance of over 700 members of the community and guests.