Amid frenzied excitement, Pope Francis was welcomed by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and dozens of Palestinian, Jewish, and Christian schoolchildren upon arriving by military helicopter atop the capital’s Mount Scopus Sunday evening.
Shortly after touching down, a thick red carpet was placed on the ground, as Barkat and several dignitaries waited to shake hands with perhaps the most famous man on the planet.
As a phalanx of heavily armed Israeli security officers carefully oversaw the procession, the pontiff radiated a cheerful and friendly demeanor, smiling as he shook the many outstretched hands.
“It’s a big honor for Jerusalem and Israel to host the pope,” said Barkat a few minutes before the helicopter landed. “His trip here has many important meanings for the Christian world and the Jewish state. And the fact that they are uniting in Jerusalem has great meaning.
“The message we’re here to convey to the pope and all Christians is that Jerusalem is open and welcoming to all religions,” he said. “And we would like to see his followers here, where they will be embraced with open arms.”
Indeed, after Francis walked down the red carpet escorted by Barkat, more than 30 Palestinian, Christian, and Jewish children from a multi-faith grade school in the capital excitedly waved Jerusalem and Vatican flags as they eagerly awaited him on a nearby stage.
With hands outstretched to touch him, Francis returned the gesture in kind, with a warm smile, as he patiently kneeled to shake hands and gently caress many of their cheeks. The children, primarily sixth grade students bused in from the Maxryne Hand-in- Hand School near Beit Safafa, could not contain their excitement.
“It’s an honor to meet the pope because he is very important!” said Adar Shriki, an 11-year-old Jewish student from the school. “He’s like the president, but even more important!” Samira Hallak, an 11-year-old Christian student, also expressed awe at meeting Francis.
“I love the pope because I am a Christian and he is the head of the Church,” she said. “I always wanted to meet him and talk to him!” Meanwhile, Reema Garra, a Palestinian student at the school, struck a more serious tone when she explained the import of the pontiff’s visit.
“It is very important that he is here,” she said. Asked what she would say to him, Garra smiled.
“I would tell him that it’s very exciting to meet him and it’s very important to me that he comes because in Israel Christians are very important people.”
After greeting all the children, Barkat presented the pope with an inscription translated into Latin from the city’s Shiloach Pool, describing the digging of the tunnel during the time of King Hezekiah to bring the waters of the Gihon into the ancient capital.
The mayor then spoke of the importance of ensuring the capital remains central to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
“More than 700 years before Christ, all people worshiped and respected the city of Jerusalem, and that is our future,” said Barkat, as he handed the pope the inscription.
“The monuments of the city of Jerusalem represent our mutual future, and this is an honor from me to you on behalf of all the people of Jerusalem.”
While stating that it is “God’s will that Jerusalem be the city of peace,” the pontiff conceded that it clearly remains defined by conflict.
Earlier Sunday morning while visiting the West Bank, Pope Francis described the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as “unacceptable” and beseeched both sides to find a peaceful resolution.
Meanwhile, as the pontiff was led to a waiting SUV to take him to the Old City for his overnight stay, several of the Palestinian, Jewish, and Christian students shouted in unison: “Welcome to Israel!”
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