Pope Francis paid homage to the Jewish religion and state as he wrapped up his brief threeday visit to the Middle East Monday by placing a note in the Western Wall and laying a wreath on the tomb of the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl.
It was part of a packed day filled with symbolic gestures, in which the pontiff helped President Shimon Peres plant an olive tree and stood in the Yad Vashem memorial to the Six Million Holocaust victims, saying, “Never again, Lord, never again.”
Throughout his trip, he called for Jews, Muslims, and Christians to use religion as the basis for a more tolerant society.
At the Dome of the Rock on Monday morning, he said, “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! May we learn to understand the sufferings of others! May no one abuse the name of God through violence!” Speaking with Israel’s chief rabbis at Heichal Shlomo in downtown Jerusalem, the pontiff said: “Together, we can make a great contribution to the cause of peace.” He added that, “Together, we can firmly oppose every form of anti-Semitism and all other forms of discrimination.”
Pope Francis, who was ordained just last year, is the fourth pontiff to visit Israel in the state’s history, but the first to so heavily underscore the importance of interfaith relations and to pay such a deep tribute to Judaism.
He was accompanied on his visit by two friends, Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Imam Omar Abboud.
While in Amman, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem, the pontiff called for an end to regional conflicts, but focused in particular on asking Israelis and Palestinians to seek peace.
In a surprising move, he offered the Vatican as a venue to help bring both sides together, inviting Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to join him there to pray for peace. Both sides have accepted the invitation for a meeting that could be held as early as June 5.
On Monday, Peres told the pope during a public ceremony: “I believe that your visit and call for peace will echo through the region and 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.
“This solution can be reached by mutual agreement. I believe that the citizens of the region want peace. They pray for peace. They are ready for peace with their neighbors and with all the nations of our region,” Peres said.
In Bethlehem on Sunday morning, Francis stopped for a moment of prayer at the security barrier on his way to celebrate a Mass at Manger Square. His friend, Rabbi Skorka, who traveled with him, told Army Radio that in that moment Pope Francis prayed for peace so the wall could be dismantled.
On Monday, Netanyahu made a stop of his own with the pope, and asked him to visit a memorial to victims of terrorism at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery.
The security barrier, he told the pontiff, was to prevent such deaths, many of which had occurred from suicide bombings.
Netanyahu pointed to the name on the wall of a 10-yearold victim who had been his son’s best friend.
“My son was 10 years old. His best friend was a girl, a beautiful Ethiopian girl. She sat next to him in class. One day she did not come [to school]. She was blown up in a bus not far from here, because [at that time] there was no fence, no wall,” Netanyahu said.
The pope listened to him and uttered a short prayer. The pontiff said, “In this place of deep pain, where we remember all this pain, I want to say that terrorism is bad, the way of terrorism does not help and the path of terrorism is fundamentally criminal.”
“I pray for all these victims, and for all the victims of terrorism in the world,” the pontiff said. He then walked over to the wall and touched it, exactly as he had touched the barrier.
Netanyahu responded. “We are grateful for your words today. Israel wants peace. We do not teach our children to plant bombs. We teach them peace.
But we have to build a wall against those who teach the other side. It cannot prevent the incitement to hate and terrorism and the destruction that permeates so much of the society on the other side of the fence. If that changes, the wall can come down and we can have peace.”
When Netanyahu met with the pontiff later in the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem, he told him: “I long for the day when your call to recognize the State of Israel and the right of Jews to a state of their own, so they can live in peace and security, will be accepted by our neighbors.”
“If this doesn’t bring peace on Earth, it will at least bring peace to a portion of it,” he said.
Netanyahu also told the pontiff that Israel is home to many churches in places like Jerusalem and Nazareth.
“We preserve all of them. Not even one stone has been moved,” he said. “The rights of Christians in this state are protected.
To my sorrow, that doesn’t happen in other places in the Middle East. We respect the call Your Holiness made for religious tolerance. In Israel, we maintain that tolerance,” he said.
“Palestinian terrorism not only hurts us, it also harms Christians,” he added. “So when we talk about steps for peace and an era of peace, we first have to demand an end to incitement and terrorism,” he said.
“We also have to call on the Palestinians to finally recognize the rights of Jews to a state of their own. This is the root of the conflict. The conflict will end, once they [the Palestinians] recognize that Israel is the homeland of the Jews,” he said.
At Monday’s meeting with Pope Francis, Netanyahu also told him about a televised report on Channel 10, which showed children in a refugee camp in the West Bank Palestinian city of Jenin, who held up toy guns and said that they wanted to die, so Israel would die.”
“That is the true face of Palestinian incitement,” Netanyahu said.
On the tarmac before boarding an El Al plane for Rome, the pontiff shook hands one more time with Netanyahu and Peres, who thanked him for coming.
“Bon voyage. We pray for you and you pray for us,” Netanyahu told the pontiff.