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Peace, tolerance, hope and prayer were the buzz words in conversations between President Shimon Peres and Pope Benedict XVI during the pontiff's first day in Israel on Monday.
In his welcoming address at Ben-Gurion Airport, Peres greeted the pope with the traditional "Shalom," adding, "I see your visit here, to the Holy Land, as an important spiritual mission of the highest order: a mission of peace, a mission of planting seeds of tolerance and uprooting the weeds of fanaticism.
"I appreciate your stances and your actions to bring down the level of violence and hatred in the world. I am certain that this will be a continuation of the dialogue between Judaism and Christianity in the spirit of the prophets."
Later, at the start of his address at the reception that he hosted for the pope at Beit Hanassi, Peres said to him, "In you, we see a promoter of peace; a great spiritual leader; a potent bearer of the message of peace to this land and to all others."
Prior to the pope's arrival, there had been much speculation about how he would relate to the Holocaust. Benedict referred to it almost immediately when he said at the airport red-carpet ceremony, "Tragically, the Jewish people have experienced the terrible consequences of ideologies that deny the fundamental dignity of every human person."
It was right and fitting, he said, that during his stay he would have the opportunity to honor the memories of the six million victims of the Holocaust, and to pray that humanity would never again witness a crime of such magnitude.
Noting that "anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head in many parts of the world," the pope said that this was totally unacceptable.
"Every effort must be made to combat anti-Semitism wherever it is found, and to promote respect and esteem for the members of every people, tribe, language and nation across the globe," Benedict said.
Turning to a more local topic, the pope said, "Even though the name Jerusalem means 'city of peace,' it is all too evident that, for decades, peace has tragically eluded the inhabitants of the Holy Land.
"The eyes of the world are upon the peoples of this region as they struggle to achieve a just and lasting solution to conflicts that have caused so much suffering," he said. "The hopes of countless men, women and children for a more secure and stable future depend on the outcome of negotiations for peace between Israelis and Palestinians."
The people waiting in the airport reception line to greet the pope had a much better chance of getting close to him than did the guests at Beit Hanassi. There was a long line of clergy at the airport, including several Catholics who joyfully leaned forward to kiss the pope's ring.
There was hardly any ring-kissing at Beit Hanassi, although the pope was slightly taken aback when embraced on stage by Peres. One person who did succeed in kissing the pope's ring was Korean Ambassador Young Sam Ma, a devout Catholic who managed to get to the aisle as Peres and the pope were leaving.
During the official part of the ceremony, Peres said that spiritual leaders could pave the way for political leaders.
"They can clear the minefields that obstruct the road to peace," he said. "The spiritual leaders should reduce animosity so that political leaders do not resort to destructive means."
The pope also saw spiritual leaders as facilitators for peace, saying that they must be mindful of division and tension. He quoted scripture that prophesied peace, declaring it "the Almighty's promise to humanity."
He said he knew that there were many people in the region working for peace and solidarity through initiatives of compassionate and practical outreach.
"Humble enough to forgive, they have the courage to grasp the dream," he said.
In their private conversation prior to their public appearance, the pope told Peres that Israel was the Promised Land from which tolerance and peace would come.
The two discussed the Arab peace initiative, and each commented that in their various conversations with Arab leaders, they had detected a change in attitude - not only regarding Israel, but also regarding Iran, whose nuclear program most Arab leaders oppose.
If Arab leaders can be united in the quest for regional peace, there will be great progress, Peres told the pope, who responded that the doors of the church were always open to Middle East peace efforts and to peace in the world at large.
He added that the church clearly understood the right of the Jewish People to live in its land.
Peres then asked the pope to lead the world in advocating separation of religion from terror. The pope presented Peres with a painting of a seven-branched gold candelabrum like the one that stood in the Temple.
That candelabrum was looted by Titus when the Temple was destroyed and taken to Rome, and there are many Jews who believe that it is hidden in the vaults of the Vatican.
Among those Jews are right-wing activists Itamar Ben-Gvir and Michael Ben-Ari, who led a small group of people standing opposite Beit Hanassi to protest the papal visit. The group was dispersed by security personnel before the pope's arrival.
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