By Ofira Koopmans, DPA
JERUSALEM — Pope Francis balanced out a prior detour to Israel’s controversial West Bank wall outside Bethlehem with a visit to a monument honoring the victims of suicide bombers in Jerusalem as he wrapped up his Holy Land pilgrimage Monday.
The pope ended a historic, three-day Holy Land pilgrimage, rife with calls for bridging divisions within Christianity, between religions, and between Israelis and Palestinians.
The last leg, in Jerusalem, included visits to Jewish and Muslim holy sites; the grave of Zionist leader Thedor Herzl; and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. There were also meetings with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Both detours by the “unpredictable” pope — who surprised Sunday by issuing an unprecedented invitation to Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for a joint prayer session at the Vatican — had not been scheduled.
The visit to the monument for victims of terrorism was a request by Netanyahu, who made a point of emphasizing that the wall, which Israel built in and around the West Bank, had “saved thousands of people.”
“We don’t teach our children to build bombs. But we had to build a wall against those who teach the other side,” Netanyahu told the pontiff, who condemned terrorism as “evil” and as “fundamentally criminal.”
“I pray for all these victims of terrorism and for all the victims of terrorism in the world,” added Francis, placing his hand briefly on the Jerusalem stone rectangle.
The pontiff on Sunday made an unscheduled visit to the controversial West Bank security wall after a request from Abbas. During the visit, he placed his hand on the concrete and bowed his head for four minutes.
The pontiff opened his last day by visiting al-Aqsa mosque on the site Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary and Jews call the Temple Mount. There Francis urged non-violence in a meeting with the Sunni cleric in charge of the city’s Islamic sites.
“May no one abuse the name of God through violence,” the pontiff told the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Mohammad Hussein, who condemned the Israeli occupation, called for the release of hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners and spoke out against Israeli police incursions onto the platform in response to stone-throwing.
The pope then prayed at the Western Wall, the remnant of the wall that surrounded the courtyard of the destroyed biblical Jewish Temple.
Flanked by the Jewish rabbi and Muslim representative accompanying him from Argentina, Francis placed a handwritten note between the cracks, with the Our Father prayer in his native Spanish. The “moving” embrace of the friends from the three religions before the ancient stones, “surely was a very important message of the day,” said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi.
Francis’ next stop was Mount Herzl for a wreath-laying ceremony at the grave of Zionist leader Herzl, a first for a pontiff. It was from there that he walked by foot to the nearby terrorism victims monument.
He met survivors and laid a wreath at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, stating, “Never again, Lord, never again!”
Meeting Israel’s two chief rabbis next to Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue, he called for Jewish-Christian friendship and described the progress made in recent decades in the relationship between Jews and Catholics as “a genuine gift of God.”
A meeting with Peres, who was praised by the pope as “good,” “wise” and a “man of peace” lasted significantly longer than scheduled, while a subsequent audience with Netanyahu was notably shorter.
Peres said he hoped Francis’ call for peace would “contribute to revitalizing the efforts to complete the peace process between us and the Palestinians, based on two states living in peace. A Jewish state — Israel. And an Arab state — Palestine.”
Formally accepting the invitation to the Vatican with Abbas, Peres said: “We will be happy to conduct such a prayer, in our home or yours, in accordance with your generous offer.”
Lombardi said no date had yet been set for the session, a highly unusual and symbolic gesture. “We hope in a very short time,” he told a news conference in Jerusalem. Peres’ term as president is scheduled to end in July.
Before boarding his plane back to Rome in the late evening, the spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics celebrated Mass at the so-called Cenacle, a room in an ancient building where Christians believe the Last Supper was celebrated, and met priests at Gethsamene, the garden where, according to the Gospel, Jesus spent the night before his crucifixion.
Francis started his historic Holy Land pilgrimage — only the fourth ever by a reigning pope — in Jordan on Saturday and spent much of Sunday in the West Bank, where he greeted thousands in a packed and festive Manger Square.
The official highlight was a joint service in Jerusalem’s church of the Holy Sepulcher on Sunday night with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, marking 50 years since a historic reconciliation between the eastern and western churches.
AFP Photo/Thomas Coex