JERUSALEM -- Pope Francis continued his goodwill tour through the Middle East today, offering a message of “mercy, magnanimity and compassion” in stops at sites holy to both Muslims and Jews and visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial to lament what he called a “boundless tragedy.”
Yet there were reminders around the edges that the divisions besetting the world’s most contested piece of real estate may not be quite so easily dispelled.
This morning, Francis went to both the Dome of the Rock, where Muslims believe that Muhammad ascended to Heaven, and the Western Wall, the last remaining portion of the ancient Israelite temple. He met with both the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and the Chief Rabbis of Israel, the leading authorities of both faiths in the country.
Francis was accompanied along the way by his own inter-religious partners, Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim leader Omar Abboud, both friends of the pontiff from Argentina invited to be part of his delegation for the trip.
Upon arrival at the Dome of the Rock, Francis removed his shoes in keeping with Islamic custom, and later joined his hosts in a cup of tea. Addressing Grand Mufti Muhammad Ahmad Hussein and other Islamic leaders, Francis expressed joy at being with his “dear Muslim friends”, urging Christians and Muslims together to listen to God’s summons “to work for peace and justice.”
The pontiff also voiced a “heartfelt plea” that “no one abuse the name of God through violence.”
At the Western Wall, Francis was greeted by a small Jewish delegation that offered an explanation of the site’s history using a small-scale model. He then approached the wall for several moments of silent prayer, at one point reaching out and placing his hand on the wall in a sign of reverence.
The pontiff also placed a small envelope in one of the gaps of the wall, repeating a gesture performed by Pope John Paul II in 2000 and again by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. The handwritten text contained the words of the “Our Father,” a traditional Christian prayer, in Spanish, to emphasize the unity of the faiths.
Speaking to the rabbis, Francis said he was happy to be among Christianity’s “older brothers.”
The pope reminded them that he had many Jewish friends in Argentina and called not only for deepening the social ties between the two faiths, but also for deeper reflection on “the spiritual significance of the bond existing between us.”
Francis called on Jews and Christians to “firmly oppose every form of anti-Semitism and all other forms of discrimination.”
Earlier in the morning, Francis became the first pope to lay a wreath at the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism and a figure considered the spiritual father of the modern State of Israel. In an addition to an already tight schedule, Francis also made a brief stop at a memorial to Israeli victims of terrorism.
The pope’s visit to Yad Vashem may represent the most evocative moment of the morning, as Francis listened to extracts of Holocaust victims and also met a small group of survivors. He kissed the hands of several survivors, both men and women, and listened carefully to their words.
Joseph Gottdenker, who was born a Jew in Poland in 1942 and raised in hiding by a Catholic family, called the experience “very moving.”
“I didn’t know it was going to happen,” he said of the pope kissing his hand. “I thought I should be kissing his hand, not the other way around.”
The pontiff delivered a quasi-poetic reflection woven together from citations of the Jewish Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament.
Calling the Holocaust a “boundless tragedy,” Francis said the evil performed was so great that “perhaps not even the Father could imagine so great a fall, so profound an abyss.”
Despite the pope’s attempts to stress unity, there were reminders of the fault lines that scar relations in the Middle East and complicate efforts at reconciliation.
For one thing, the security presence around the pope this morning was noticeably thicker than it has been so far through the trip, reflecting the sensitivity of Jerusalem sites where Islam, Judaism and Christianity intersect and sometimes conflict.
For another, politics obviously hung around the pope’s agenda.
He made the stop at the memorial to terror victims this morning at the request of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after an Israeli foreign ministry spokesperson dismissed the pope’s unscheduled prayer yesterday at the barrier between Israel and the West Bank as a “propaganda stunt.”
Later, during the session with Muslim leaders, Francis sat quietly while Hussein, the Grand Mufti, delivered a blistering denunciation of what he called Israeli “occupation” of Palestinian territory and Islamic holy sites.
“We demand justice and to put an end to the Israeli occupation that seeks to cancel our identity,” Hussein said, charging that Israeli policy is in violation of “both heavenly law and international law.”
Hussein asked Pope Francis to use his moral authority “to put an end to the violent and unjust practices versus both Muslims and Christians.”
Azzam Khatib, the director general of the Islamic Waqf, or religious authority, which governs the Dome of the Rock, then told Francis that a group of Palestinian children are currently on a hunger strike to protest their treatment by the Israeli authorities.
“Peace will never arrive without an end to all forms of occupation,” Khatib said, as well as “an end to violence against our people, our land and our holy sites.”
Meanwhile, Israeli police had to be called during the night to a complex containing both the Cenacle, a room where Christians believe Jesus celebrated the last supper, as well as what many Jews regard as the tomb of the Biblical King David.
Pope Francis will celebrate a Mass in the Cenacle later today, which has angered ultra-Orthodox Jews. They’re also upset over a rumored deal between Israel and the Vatican to hand over control of the complex to Christians, though both sides have denied that any such transfer is in the works.
Police arrested 26 ultra-Orthodox demonstrators, after more than 150 activists tried to storm the complex and reportedly attacked police with stones and bottles. Some tried to barricade themselves inside.
Those arrested reportedly included a solider sympathetic to the demonstrators who threatened police with his rifle, while several police officers sustained minor injuries.
After meeting local clergy and nuns this afternoon, Pope Francis will celebrate a Mass with the bishops of the Holy Land before leaving to return to Rome. On the flight to the Jordanian capital Amman on Saturday, the pontiff promised to conduct a press conference during his return flight.