Pope Francis balances time with Israelis and Palestinians during visit to Holy Land

May 26

Proving himself to be a shrewd diplomat, Pope Francis on Monday reached out to Jewish Israelis by kissing the hands of elderly Holocaust survivors at a memorial, praying at the holiest Jewish site in Jerusalem — the Western Wall — and later placing a wreath at the grave of the founder of Zionism.

And at the invitation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the pontiff added an unplanned stop at an Israeli monument to commemorate the civilian and military victims of terror attacks.

The pope’s unscheduled trip to the terror victims memorial was added by the Vatican after Israeli authorities privately complained about the pontiff’s photo op Sunday at a controversial security barrier in Bethlehem separating Israel and the West Bank, according to an account from a Western diplomat in Jerusalem.

The new pope, 15 months into his job, demonstrated a canny ability to calm emotions in a region beset by religious and political frictions on a three-day trip to the Holy Land that ended Monday. The pontiff had said his visit would be “strictly religious,” but it was not.

Francis on Sunday secured a promise from Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to meet with him at the Vatican next month to pray together and talk peace. While his efforts may lead to nothing, Francis at least has gotten the two sides to start talking again after Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s negotiations collapsed in a round of bitter recriminations in April.

Asked what the three men might discuss, a Vatican spokesman said: “The pope does not have a political agenda and does not have a proposal for diplomatic dialogue. This is not his mission. This is not what he desires.”

In a marathon schedule that saw the 77-year-old pontiff attend more than 30 events in 55 hours, the pope seemed willing to acknowledge the often-conflicting narratives of suffering from both Israelis and Palestinians.

He also was a gracious guest in Jordan, showering Jordan’s ruling monarch, King Abdullah II, himself a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad, with praise for his people’s generosity. There are about 600,000 registered Syrian refugees and 250,000 Iraqis who live in Jordan after fleeing war and chaos in their homelands.

On Sunday, the pontiff prayed in Bethlehem at a section of the high cement wall that recently had been spray-painted with graffiti reading “Free Palestine” and comparing Bethlehem, surrounded by barriers on three sides in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, to the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw during the reign of the Nazis.

The photograph of the pope at the wall was published widely in news reports and social media around the world, and Vatican and Israeli officials acknowledged that Netanyahu was troubled by the stop.

According to the prime minister’s office, Netanyahu said he “explained to the pope that building the security fence prevented many more victims [of] Palestinian terror, which continues today.” A Vatican spokesman conceded that “some had difficulty understanding his act at the wall yesterday.”

Pope Francis on Monday made history as the first pope to visit the tomb of Theodor Herzl, one of the founders of Zionism and a leading advocate for the creation of the state of Israel.

Francis also visited with the grand mufti of Jerusalem, the caretaker of Islam’s holy places here, and a guardian of the Al-
Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, believed by Jews to be the place where Abraham’s hand was stopped by God as he was about to sacrifice his son Isaac and by Muslims as the place where the prophet Muhammad began his night journey to heaven.

The pontiff also visited the Western Wall, part of a retaining wall around the raised esplanade where the Jewish temple once stood. Pope Francis left a note in one of the crevices between the ancient stones, and he was embraced there by two old friends from Buenos Aires, one a rabbi and the other a leader of Argentina’s small Muslim community.

“What was new and was impacting this morning was the embrace of three people before the wall. The pope, the rabbi and the Muslim representative. . . . They have given us a sign in a significant and holy place. This is an important message, that they can embrace together,” said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See press office.

During his 45 minutes at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, the pope laid a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance to the 6 million Jews who were killed and met with six Holocaust survivors who shared with him their stories of survival. One by one, the pope bent and kissed their hands.

He wrote in the guest book: “With shame for what man, who was created in the image of God, was able to do; with shame for the fact that man made himself the owner of evil; with shame that man made himself into God and sacrificed his brothers.” He signed his note: “Never again!! Never again!! Francis.”

william.booth@washpost.com

ruth.eglash@washpost.com

William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.
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