JERUSALEM: Pope Francis wrapped up his Mideast pilgrimage Monday with a balancing act of symbolic and sometimes spontaneous gestures to press his call for peace between Israel and the Palestinians and friendship between Jews and Muslims in the land of Jesus’ birth.
A day after he boosted Palestinian aspirations by praying at Israel’s security barrier surrounding Bethlehem, Francis honored Holocaust victims by kissing the hands of several survivors, and accepted Israel’s last-minute request to pray at a memorial to victims of suicide bombings and other attacks.
But the image that the Vatican hopes will define the trip, and perhaps Francis’ young papacy, was another: that of the leader of the 1.2 billion strong Roman Catholic Church embracing his Argentine friends, a rabbi and a Muslim, in front of the Western Wall, adjacent to the disputed hilltop compound that lies at the heart of decades of Israel-Arab tensions.
After visiting the golden-topped Dome of the Rock shrine on the compound on Monday morning, Francis prayed at the nearby Western Wall, leaving a hand-written note with the “Our Father” prayer written in his native Spanish in between the cracks of stone.
When he finished, a visibly emotional Francis embraced Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Omar Abboud, a leader of Argentina’s Muslim community, both of whom joined Francis on his official delegation in a potent symbol of interfaith friendship.
“I think this was the real answer to such problems that come from very long and profound difficulties,” the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said of the embrace. “What can we do? We can pray. We can ask God to help us. We can love mutually and then embrace.”
That logic lies at the heart of Francis’ surprise invitation to the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to come to the Vatican next month to pray for peace.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres readily accepted the invitation, and Peres and Francis discussed the encounter during a lengthy meeting at the president’s office.
“The humility in your nature and the power in your spirit raised a spiritual elation and a thirst for peace,” Peres told him at a ceremony in the garden of the presidential residence.
The atmosphere was starkly different in Francis’ one-on-one with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has expressed anger with politicians who have reached out to Abbas at a time when the Palestinian leader is reconciling with the Islamic militant group Hamas. Israel considers Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, a terrorist group.
In his talks with Francis, Netanyahu lauded Israel’s treatment of Christians and defended its West Bank separation barrier.
“When incitement and terror against Israel stops, there won’t be the need for the security fence which has saved thousands of lives,” Netanyahu said.
After Francis made an unscheduled stop at the massive concrete barrier on Sunday, Netanyahu asked Francis to deviate from his whirlwind itinerary to pray at Jerusalem’s Victims of Acts of Terror Memorial, which includes the names of hundreds of civilians killed in Palestinian and Arab attacks since 1851, Lombardi and Netanyahu’s office said.
As he did at the separation barrier and the Western Wall, Francis bowed his head in prayer and placed his hand on the stone. Lombardi said he then delivered a sweeping denunciation of terrorism in all its forms.
At Yad Vashem, the pope prayed before a crypt with ashes of Holocaust victims and laid a wreath of yellow and white flowers in the “Hall of Remembrance.”
Pope to meet victims
Later Monday, aboard the papal plane, the pope announced he would meet soon with a group of sex abuse victims at the Vatican and declared “zero tolerance” for any member of the clergy who would violate a child.
Francis also revealed that three bishops are currently under investigation by the Vatican for abuse-related reasons, though it wasn’t clear if they were accused of committing abuse itself or of having covered it up.
“There are no privileges,” he told reporters en route back to Rome from Jerusalem.
The meeting with a half-dozen victims will mark the first such encounter for the pope, who has been criticized by victims for not expressing personal solidarity with them when he has reached out to other people who suffer.