Pope visits Western Wall, Yad Vashem in final day of trip

Ben Sales

TEL AVIV (JTA) — Pope Francis visited an array of religious sites and national memorials on his final day in Israel.

His itinerary included visits to the Western Wall and Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, where he gave a speech condemning anti-Semitism and hatred. He also met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres.

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The pope began his day with a visit to the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock, where he met with the Grand Mufti Muhammad Ahmad Hussein of Jerusalem, the highest Muslim religious authority there.

He then went to the adjacent Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, where he prayed and left a note. He also met with Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz.

The pope also visited the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, and made an unplanned stop at a memorial for victims of terror. The visits come a day after Francis referred to the “state of Palestine” in a speech in Bethlehem and stopped to pray at Israel’s security barrier there. Those gestures were widely seen as endorsements of Palestinian national aspirations.

At Yad Vashem, the pope met with Holocaust survivors, laid a wreath and said, “Never again, Lord, never again.”

“A great evil has befallen us, as such that has never occurred,” he said in a speech. “Grant us the grace to be ashamed of what men have done, to be ashamed of this massive idolatry.”

Francis also met with Israel’s chief rabbis, David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef, as well as a group of sick Christian-Arab Israelis, before traveling to Peres’ official residence.

Francis arrived in the region Saturday, which he spent in Amman, Jordan. He went Sunday morning to Bethlehem, where he visited the Church of the Nativity — the traditional site of Jesus’ birth — and gave a speech alongside Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The pope arrived in Israel Sunday afternoon, where he gave a speech at Ben-Gurion Airport before meeting with his Eastern Orthodox Counterpart, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The two leaders signed a joint declaration and called for greater Christian unity.

“I greet all the people of Israel with prayerful good wishes that their aspirations of peace and prosperity will achieve fulfillment,” Francis said in his speech at Ben-Gurion airport. “We all know how urgent is the need for peace, not only for Israel but also for the entire region. May efforts and energies be increasingly directed to the pursuit of a just and lasting solution to the conflicts which have caused so much suffering.”