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Pope lays wreath at tomb of Zionism founder

Pope Francis bowed his head in prayer at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. Before departing, the pontiff left in a crack in the wall a note written by hand in his native Spanish with the “Our Father” prayer.

EPA/Pool

Pope Francis bowed his head in prayer at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. Before departing, the pontiff left in a crack in the wall a note written by hand in his native Spanish with the “Our Father” prayer.

JERUSALEM — Making history for the second day, Pope Francis laid a wreath Monday on the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, becoming the first pope to do so.

The gesture of support to Israel followed several gestures the day before that lent a spiritual lift to Palestinian aspirations for sovereignty.

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The visit was part of a marathon morning tour of Jerusalem in which Francis took off his shoes to enter the Dome of the Rock and later stood for several minutes with his right palm on the ancient stones of the Western Wall before placing a note between them.

At the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, he kissed the hands of six Holocaust survivors as he heard their specific stories, and, echoing a Jewish mantra, said: “Never again, Lord, never again!”

At the request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Francis added to his already packed itinerary a quick visit to a memorial to Israeli victims of terrorist attacks, perhaps in an effort to counterbalance the powerful lift he provided to Palestinians with an unscheduled stop Sunday at the concrete barrier dividing Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

“I explained to the pope that building the security fence prevented many more victims that Palestinian terror, which continues today, planned to harm,” Netanyahu said after the visit, where he pointed out the tablet commemorating the 85 people killed in a 1994 bombing at the Jewish center in Buenos Aires, the pope’s hometown.

According to a text message from the prime minister’s office, while standing at the site, Francis said: “Terrorism is absolute evil. It stems from evil and it results in evil. Never again! Never again!”

The pope embraced two Argentine friends — Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Omar Abboud, a leader of Argentina’s Muslim community — in front of the Western Wall, near the disputed hilltop compound in Jerusalem that is at the heart of decades of Israel-Arab tensions. Skorka and Abboud joined the pontiff’s official delegation as a symbol of interfaith conciliation.

After praying at the wall, Francis left a handwritten note with the ‘‘Our Father’’ prayer written in his native Spanish in between the cracks of stone.

The pope’s itinerary in Israel included meetings with Netanyahu and with President Shimon Peres of Israel, who has accepted his invitation for a peace-prayer summit meeting with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority in the Vatican next month.

Asked why Francis had invited Peres, whose position is largely ceremonial, rather than Netanyahu, who is Abbas’s counterpart in peace talks, the Vatican spokesman said the pope and the Israeli president had developed a warm relationship of “great esteem” and Peres had urged him with “great insistence” to visit the Holy Land before his term expires in July.

“The pope has with President Peres a good feeling, this is clear,” the spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, told reporters at a news conference late Sunday. “This is not an exclusion of the other, but there are good premises to pray together with President Peres and Mahmoud Abbas.”

The crammed schedule — nine stops in five hours — started the final leg of the 77-year-old pontiff’s three-day sojourn through the Holy Land, which the Vatican had described as a “purely religious” pilgrimage but in which he waded pointedly into the fraught politics of the region.

On Sunday, Francis became the first pope to travel directly into Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory and to call it the “State of Palestine,” affirming the 2012 United Nations resolution upgrading its status.

An unscheduled stop provided the defining image of the day, when the pope touched his forehead to the graffiti-scarred concrete barrier dividing Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

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