Pope wraps up pilgrimage

2009-05-15 08:05

Jerusalem - Pope Benedict XVI on Friday wraps up a Holy Land pilgrimage during which he pleaded with passion for Palestinians, lamented Israel's policies and faced claims he lacked remorse over the Holocaust.

The pope who on Thursday joined hands with clerics of other religions as a rabbi sang an ode to peace, will pray at Christianity's holiest site as he concludes the 8-day trip to Jordan, Israel and the West Bank.

Most Christians believe the 11th century Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City is built on the site where Jesus was crucified and buried. The first church on the site was built in the 4th century and its destruction 7 centuries later provided an impetus for the Crusades.

During his trip, the pope prayed at some of Christianity's most sacred pilgrimage destinations, visited Muslim and Jewish holy sites at the heart of the Middle East conflict, stood in silence at Israel's Holocaust memorial and saw the conditions in which Palestinians refugees live.

The leader of the world's 1.1 billion Christians took his message of peace and reconciliation to religious leaders of various denominations and to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

In Bethlehem, the cradle of Christianity, the pope visited Palestinian refugees living in the shadow of the 8-metre-high wall that forms part of the West Bank separation barrier Israel says is crucial to its security but which Palestinians say symbolises the Jewish state's apartheid regime.

"Towering over us... is a stark reminder of the stalemate that relations between Israelis and Palestinians seem to have reached - the wall," Benedict said at a refugee camp just outside the occupied West Bank city.

"In a world where more and more borders are being opened up - to trade, to travel, to movement of peoples, to cultural exchanges - it is tragic to see walls still being erected," he said.

International community

He expressed his solidarity with refugees and said his heart went out to relatives of detainees and families divided by Israeli restrictions on freedom of movement for Palestinians.

The pope also called for the lifting of the crippling blockade Israel has imposed against Gaza since the Islamic Hamas movement seized power there in June 2007 and expressed sorrow for the victims of the deadly 22-day military offensive Israel launched against the Palestinian enclave in December 2008.

The pope told Palestinians he understood the frustration they felt as their "legitimate aspirations" for an independent state remain unfulfilled, but also urged young people to resist the temptation "to acts of violence and terrorism".

He also urged the international community to use its influence to bring about a solution to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Upon arrival in Israel from Jordan on Monday, the pope lashed out at anti-Semitism and, at the Yad Vashem memorial for the victims of the Nazi genocide, he said the Holocaust should never be forgotten.

But the German pope drew criticism for failing to mention the six million victims of the Holocaust were murdered by the Nazis and for failing to express regret over the genocide.

Benedict prayed at Jerusalem's Western Wall, a top pilgrimage destination for Jews, and visited the compound overlooking it, which is sacred to both Jews and Muslims and has been a major flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He became the first pope to enter the Dome of the Rock on Al-Haram Al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary), also known as the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, which is Islam's third holiest spot. The site, which the Jews call Temple Mount, is the holiest in Judaism.

The pontiff celebrated open-air masses in Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem during his visit to Israel and the West Bank and at a football stadium in Amman while in Jordan.

He also addressed religious leaders at Amman's Al-Hussein mosque, calling for inter-faith reconciliation, but disappointing some Muslim clerics who wanted him to apologise anew for remarks he made in 2006 when he quoted a medieval Christian emperor who called some of Prophet Mohammed's teachings "evil and inhuman".