Pope navigates Mideast minefield

May 27, 2014 - 6:39:03 am
Pope Francis during his visit to the Al Aqsa compound in the old city of Jerusalem yesterday.

JERUSALEM: Pope Francis navigated the minefield of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and humbly bowed to kiss the hands of Holocaust survivors yesterday, the last day of a successful Mideast trip laden with bold personal gestures.

“Never again, Lord. Never again!” he said in the dimly lit Hall of Remembrance in the Yad Vashem Museum which commemorates six million Jews killed by the Nazis in World War Two.

The fourth pope to visit Israel, Francis had earlier became the first to lay a wreath at the tomb of Theodor Herzl, seen as the founder of modern Zionism that led to Israel’s foundation.

At the request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he also made an unannounced detour to Israel’s “Memorial to the Victims of Terror”, the day after unexpectedly praying at a towering Israeli security wall that is despised by Palestinians.

In a mirror image of the halt at the graffiti-smeared wall, Francis put both hands on the neat stone and marble monument and bowed his head, delighting his Israeli hosts who had smarted in silence over Sunday’s impromptu stop.

“I pray for all the victims of terrorism. Please, no more terrorism,” the softly spoken pope said at the memorial, which is engraved with the names of Israeli civilians killed mainly in attacks by Palestinian militants.

Netanyahu, standing at his side, thanked him for his words.

“We don’t teach our children to plant bombs. We teach them peace, but we have to build a wall for those who teach the other side,” he said, accusing Palestinian leaders of incitement.

Israel says its barrier in the occupied West Bank was erected to safeguard national security after a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings a decade ago. Palestinians see it as a brutal attempt to grab land they seek for a future state.

A day packed with political and religious encounters began at the Dome of the Rock, the pope taking off his shoes before walking into the Jerusalem shrine from which Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammed climbed to heaven.

Francis then went to pray at the adjacent Western Wall, one the Jews’ most revered shrines and the sole remnant of their sacred Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.

There, he, a rabbi, and an Islamic leader — both friends from his native Argentina he invited to make the trip with him — embraced in a sign of the inter-religious dialogue that Francis is convinced can be a catalyst for peace in the region.

At Yad Vashem, the pope displayed the type of humility that has become his custom since being elected pontiff in 2013.

As he was introduced to six survivors of Nazi concentration camps and told of their stories of struggle and near-starvation, he bent slowly to kiss the hand of each elderly person.

Francis’s final engagement saw him celebrating Mass in the Cenacle, a vaulted hall just beyond the walls of the Old City, which is revered by Christians as the room of the Last Supper. The floor below contains what some Jews believe to be the tomb of King David.

At the end of the Mass, the pope flew to Tel Aviv by helicopter and boarded his plane back to Italy.