Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Israel on May 11, the midpoint of his eight-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land, to participate in a series of events promoting peace and reconciliation among Christians, Muslims and Jews and to tend to a rapidly shrinking flock of Christians in the region. The pope had begun his eight-day trip in Jordan, where he walked a pilgrim's path, energizing its minority Christian population and building bridges to the moderate Muslim world.
Arrival. The pope's first day in Israel began with a remembrance of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust, accompanied by a strongly worded papal warning about new forms of anti-Semitism. Speaking at a welcoming ceremony in Tel Aviv, the pope said that he had come to Israel to honor the memory of the six million Jewish victims of the Nazi regime and "to pray that humanity will never again witness a crime of such magnitude.&rdquo "Sadly, anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head in many parts of the world. This is totally unacceptable,&rdquo the pope said.
As Israel's President Shimon Peres and other Israeli government leaders listened, the pope also urged a negotiated settlement to the decades-long conflict between Israelis and Palestinians- settlement that would allow each group to "live in peace in a homeland of their own, within secure and internationally recognized borders.&rdquo This so-called two-state solution to the conflict is currently a matter of vigorous debate among Israelis. Later the same day, meeting with Mr. Peres at the presidential palace in Jerusalem, the pope further explained his understanding of security, arguing that it is inseparable from full justice and peace and that it should not be understood simply as "the absence of a threat.&rdquo
Yad Vashem. In a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, Pope Benedict prayed silently before the eternal flame in the Hall of Remembrance and reiterated that the suffering of Jews during the Holocaust must "never be denied, belittled or forgotten.&rdquo In a talk that explored the concepts of "name&rdquo and "remembrance,&rdquo the twin themes of the memorial, the pope called the Holocaust an atrocity that disgraced mankind and said the church is committed to working tirelessly "to ensure that hatred will never reign in the hearts of men again.&rdquo He also met with six Holocaust survivors.
Yet the pope's "pilgrimage of peace&rdquo could not completely avoid the real-world divisions among Christians, Muslims and Jews. After describing the visit as "positive, important, a step forward,&rdquo Avner Shalev, chairman of the Yad Vashem directorate, echoed the sentiments of some other Jewish leaders by saying that he was disappointed that "the pope did not mention the Nazi German perpetrators&rdquo of the Holocaust. Some leaders also expressed regret that the pope did not address what they believe to be the church's own failures during World War II. At an interfaith dialogue event shortly afterward, the pope told the group that in a world that has in some ways become "deaf to the divine,&rdquo religions must give common witness to God's rightful place in the world.
The event was interrupted when a Muslim cleric seized a microphone and denounced the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, prompting some participants to walk out and precipitating an early end to the program.
Western Wall. The pope made a morning visit on May 12 to the Dome of the Rock, revered by Muslims as the place from which Mohammed ascended to heaven. He told Islamic leaders there that Christians, Muslims and Jews have a "grave responsibility&rdquo to expand dialogue and to mend divisions. The pope then went to the Western Wall, a site sacred to Jews. Taking a piece of paper on which he had written a prayer, the pope firmly folded it into quarters and placed it in a crevice of the Wall. He then stood in silent prayer for two minutes while facing the massive stones of the Wall, the only remnant of the Jewish Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 A.D.
The text of Benedict's prayer began: "God of all the ages, on my visit to Jerusalem, the 'City of Peace,&rsquo spiritual home to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, I bring before you the joys, the hopes and the aspirations, the trials, the suffering and the pain of all your people throughout the world.&rdquo Pope Benedict's prayer asked God to "hear the cry of the afflicted, the fearful, the bereft send your peace upon this Holy Land, upon the Middle East, upon the entire human family [and] stir the hearts of all who call upon your name, to walk humbly in the path of justice and compassion.&rdquo The pope ended his prayer with a quote from the Book of Lamentations: "The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him.&rdquo
Mount of Olives. Standing below the Mount of Olives, where Scripture records that Jesus wept for Jerusalem, Benedict urged the region's Christians to stay in the Holy Land and work for harmony among its people. Those who love Jerusalem want to see the city "as a prophecy and promise of that universal reconciliation and peace which God desires for the whole human family,&rdquo the pope said in his homily during an outdoor Mass there. "Sadly, beneath the walls of this same city, we are also led to consider how far our world is from the complete fulfillment&rdquo of the prophecy of Jerusalem as a city of peace, he added. In Jerusalem today, "hope continues to battle despair, frustration and cynicism, while the peace which is God's gift and call continues to be threatened by selfishness, conflict, division and the burden of past wrongs.&rdquo
Like many of the events, the Mass was tinged with politics. Welcoming the pope, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem said Palestinians dream of a "free and independent&rdquo state of their own while the people of Israel dream of living in their state in peace and security. The patriarch said the Catholic community is shrinking, mainly because of emigration due to the "just occupation&rdquo of Palestinian land by Israel and "all its humiliation.&rdquo The pope asked the city's Christians to hang on to the hope that comes from Jesus&rsquo resurrection and to demonstrate that hope to others by "bearing witness to the power of forgiveness and showing forth the church's deepest nature as the sign and sacrament of a humanity reconciled, renewed and made one in Christ.&rdquo Israeli police said about 5,000 people attended the Mass.
The pope's pilgrimage to the Holy Land concluded with visits to Bethlehem and Nazareth on May 13 and 14.