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Middle East

Pope continues to stray from script on final day in Israel


Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-05-26

Pope Francis called for Christians, Jews and Muslims to work together for peace as he toured holy sites in Jerusalem on Monday, the final day of his Middle East pilgrimage.

Francis had promised the three-day pilgrimage, which began on Saturday in Jordan, would steer clear of political issues.

But he deviated from his prepared script on Monday to condemn anti-Semitism, religious intolerance and those behind conflicts in the Middle East.

He also followed an unscheduled visit on the previous day, when he stopped to pray at the West Bank barrier, with an impromptu stop Monday at a memorial for Israeli civilians killed in deadly Palestinian attacks.

The pope began Monday with an early-morning tour of key sacred places in the walled Old City. The 77-year-old pontiff first visited Al-Aqsa mosque compound, then prayed at the Western Wall, which lies just beneath it.

He made his stop at a memorial for Israeli civilians as he visited the national cemetery.

The unscheduled visit to the stone monument with black marble plaques in memory of the dead, inside Mount Herzl cemetery, came just after Francis had laid a wreath on the grave of Theodore Herzl, founder of modern Zionism.

The unscheduled visit reportedly took place at the personal request of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, army radio reported.

'May we respect and love one another'

It came after four people were killed on Saturday, including two Israelis, when a gunman opened fire on the Jewish Museum in Brussels, prompting the pope to say he was "profoundly saddened" as he landed in Israel on the final leg of his Middle East tour.

After visiting the cemetery, Pope Francis went to the neighbouring Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial where he was expected to give an address.

The pontiff was rounding off a whirlwind trip during which he invited the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to pray with him at the Vatican to end their "increasingly unacceptable" conflict.

Both Shimon Peres, the Israeli president who plays no decision-making role in diplomacy, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, accepted the offer, but there was little hope that the unusual initiative could break decades of mutual mistrust and deadlock.

Unscheduled stop

On Sunday, the pope had made an unscheduled stop by the West Bank barrier, climbing out of his open jeep to pray, his forehead and hand resting against the wall, in a powerful show of support for Palestinians.

A message scrawled on the eight-metre high concrete barrier said: "Pope we need someone to speak about justice."

Israel says the barrier, which it began building in 2002, is crucial for security. Palestinians see it as a land grab aimed at stealing territory they want for a future state.

On Monday,  after being shown around the Al-Aqsa compound, Francis said: "May we work together for justice and peace."

The Al-Aqsa site is also considered sacred by Jews because it was where their two famed Jerusalem temples once stood.

Entering the exquisite blue-tiled Dome of the Rock with its landmark golden cupola, used as a place of worship for women only, the pope first removed his shoes before walking down to visit the smaller, silver-domed Al-Aqsa mosque.

For Jews, the plaza is the holiest site in Judaism but they are forbidden by law to pray there, praying instead at the adjacent Western Wall, where the pope made his next stop.

Ancient stones

Placing his right hand on the ancient stones, he bowed his head in prayer for a few minutes before placing a note in the wall, then sharing an emotional embrace with two close Jewish and Muslim friends travelling with him.

When St. John Paul II visited in 2000, he left a note asking forgiveness for the suffering inflicted on Jews by Christians over history. Pope Benedict XVI's note prayed for peace for Christians, Muslims and Jews alike. The Vatican hasn't said if the contents of Francis' prayer would be released.

The pope was scheduled to end the day by celebrating mass at the site known as the Cenacle, or Upper Room, bringing into sharp focus a decades-long debate over prayer rites at the site where Christians believe Jesus had his Last Supper.

The site on Mount Zion is located in a two-storey building also considered holy to Muslims and Jews, who regard it as the place where the biblical figure David was buried.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP, Reuters)


Date created : 2014-05-26


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