In Mideast, pope makes symbolic gestures to both sides

Perhaps the most lasting image from Pope Francis’ trip to Israel and the West Bank will be the pontiff praying, eyes closed, with his head against a wall.

It wasn’t the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Judaism’s holiest site and a necessary stop for visiting dignitaries, but Israel’s security barrier in the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

Pope Francis kisses the hand of a Holocaust survivor at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. photo/jta-flash90-gpo-amos ben gershom

Francis, who has made tolerance a theme since becoming pope last year, aimed to bring a message of peace when he visited Israel, the West Bank and Jordan last weekend. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict loomed over his visit as leaders on both sides aimed to present him with their narrative of the conflict.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas asked Francis in a speech for help in “bringing the Israeli occupation to a complete end.” Palestinian authorities then took the pope to a walled segment of Israel’s West Bank security barrier, where he prayed near graffiti comparing the wall to the Warsaw Ghetto.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the pope that barriers were erected to protect civilians, and at the Israeli leader’s request, Francis made an unscheduled stop May 26  at a memorial for terror victims during an already packed itinerary.

“We don’t teach our children to plant bombs,” Netanyahu said, standing alongside the pope at the memorial. “We teach them peace. But we have to build a wall against those who teach the other side.”

For his part, Francis offered symbolic gestures to both sides. On May 25, the pope entered the West Bank directly from Jordan rather than stopping first in Israel as previous popes had done, and he referred to the “state of Palestine” in a speech in Bethlehem.

In Israel, he became the first pope to lay a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, and made the standard stops at the Western Wall and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. He also invited Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to a prayer summit for peace at the Vatican next month. Both leaders accepted.

The pope began his Mideast sojourn in Jordan on May 24 and traveled to Bethlehem the next morning, where he gave joint speeches with Abbas and led a Mass at the Church of the Nativity, the traditional site of Jesus’ birth.

Francis arrived in Israel May 25 and spent the afternoon meeting with his Eastern Orthodox counterpart, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, and visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

On May 26, he visited the Temple Mount and met with the Muslim grand mufti of Jerusalem. He also met with Peres and Netanyahu, Chief Rabbis Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau, and Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz.

At Yad Vashem, the pope said in a speech, “A great evil has befallen us, as such that has never occurred,” and referred to the Holocaust by its Hebrew term, Shoah.

Also on May 26, Francis met with Christian leaders and visited several Christian holy sites, including the Cenacle, regarded by Christians as the site of the Last Supper and by Jews as the tomb of King David.

Tensions have risen recently over reports that Israel will allow increased Christian access to the site. In advance of the pope’s visit, Israeli police arrested 26 people who planned to protest there.

The pope’s trip came 50 years after the first papal visit to Israel, by Pope Paul VI in 1964. During that trip, Paul VI did not meet with Israeli leaders and did not refer to the State of Israel in his speeches.

Much has changed in the interim. Israel and the Vatican established diplomatic relations in 1994 and, on this trip, Pope Francis offered rich words of praise — and his prayers, he said — for Israel’s leaders.