Pope Francis entered the most contested piece of territory in the Holy Land today, delivering an impassioned appeal to “work together for justice and peace.”
The pontiff began the second day of his visit to the West Bank and Israel by visiting a hilltop compound in Jerusalem’s Old City that houses Islam’s third-holiest site and is revered by Jews as the site of their biblical temple.
Francis removed his shoes, in the Muslim tradition, to enter the gold-capped Dome of the Rock on the site known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif and to Jews as Temple Mount. The centrality of the site, captured by Israel in 1967, to both Judaism and Islam puts it at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“From this holy place I make a heartfelt plea to all people and to all communities who look to Abraham: May we respect and love one another as brothers and sisters!,” he said after leaving the Dome of the Rock to address Muslim clergy, according to a transcript on the Vatican website.
“May we work together for justice and peace! Salaam!” he said, using the Arabic word for peace.
At the foot of the compound, Francis placed a note in a crevice of the Western Wall, a remnant of the biblical Jewish temple, as is the Jewish custom. The note contained the text of the “Our Father” prayer, written in his native Spanish, the Vatican said.
From the Old City, the papal entourage proceeded to Mount Herzl, where Francis placed a wreath at the grave of Zionist leader Theodor Herzl and made an unscheduled stop at a memorial to Israeli victims of terrorism.
At the nearby Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, he lit a flame at the shrine honoring 6 million Jews who perished during the Holocaust.
“Here we are, Lord, shamed by what man, created in your own image and likeness, was capable of doing,” Francis said at a ceremony attended by President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The pontiff began his two-day visit to the West Bank and Israel yesterday with a short helicopter ride from the Jordanian capital of Amman to Bethlehem, where he celebrated Mass in Manger Square. In a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Francis called for “the state of Palestine” to be fully established and lamented the collapse of U.S.-mediated peace talks last month.
‘Find the Courage’
“The time has come to put an end to this situation, which has become increasingly unacceptable,” Francis said yesterday upon arriving in the West Bank city, revered as the birthplace of Jesus. “The time has come for everyone to find the courage to be generous and creative in the service of the common good.”
The pope showed further support for the Palestinian cause with an unscripted stop at the concrete wall dividing Bethlehem and Jerusalem, part of the West Bank barrier Israel says it built to keep out attackers and which Palestinians say encroach on territory they want for a future state. He leaned his head against a section of the barrier, which had “Free Palestine” and “Apartheid Wall” spray-painted on it and was located near an Israeli military watchtower.
The pontiff invited Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to jointly visit the Vatican and pray for peace. Both accepted.
Ending the day in Jerusalem’s Old City, Francis met at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with Orthodox Christian leader Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. Their encounter marked the 50th anniversary of the 1964 meeting between the leaders of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, which led to a mending of the split that had taken place more than nine centuries earlier.
Francis is the third pontiff to visit Israel since the Vatican established diplomatic ties with the Jewish state in 1993.