JERUSALEM — 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. It was Israel’s security fence in the West Bank city of Bethlehem.
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.
PA 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 fence, 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 Monday, 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 Sunday, 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 and stopped to pray at Israel’s security fence there.
Read related IJN editorial, "Did Pope Francis get Israel’s security fence?"
In Israel, he became the first pope to lay a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, and made 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 invitation despite the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations last month.
“Peacemaking demands first and foremost respect for the dignity and freedom of every human person, which Jews, Christians and Muslims alike believe to be created by G-d and destined to eternal life,” Francis said in a speech at Peres’ official residence.
“This shared conviction enables us resolutely to pursue peaceful solutions to every controversy and conflict.”
POPE Francis met with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the end his visit to Israel last weekend.
Francis met with Peres at the president’s official residence in Jerusalem, where they exchanged gifts and planted a tree. Peres in a speech praised the pope for his commitment to peace and his strong stance against anti-Semitism.
“I appeal to all the religious and spiritual leaders of our time: Make your voices heard,” Peres said.
“With a clear message. Know that you stand as firmly as a rock against any attempt to connect religion to terror. And that you aspire to create a common ground for global, regional and individual peace. We join you with body and soul in the effort to thwart murder and replace it by gates of peace.”
Francis called Peres “a man of peace.” The pope has invited Peres and PA President Mahmoud Abbas to join him at a prayer summit for peace next month in the Vatican.
“Peacemaking demands first and foremost respect for the dignity and freedom of every human person, which Jews, Christians and Muslims alike believe to be created by G-d and destined to eternal life,” Francis said.
The pope then met Netanyahu for lunch at the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem. In a speech there, Netanyahu criticized anti-Israel incitement in the Arab world and said Israel’s security fence in the West Bank was necessary. A day earlier, Francis stopped to pray at the barrier during his visit to Bethlehem.
“We also hope that your call for tolerance, coexistence and an end to incitement, anti-Semitism and terrorism will be accepted by all of our neighbors,” Netanyahu said.
“If the incitement against the State of Israel ceases, along with the terrorism, there will be no need for the means that we have undertaken, such as the security fence, which has saved lives, thousands of lives.”
After meeting Netanyahu, the pope met again with Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and visited several Christian holy sites, including Mount Zion, the Garden of Gethsemane and the Cenacle, the traditional site of Jesus’ Last Supper.
Lebanese Maronite Catholic Cardinal Bechara Rai accompanied Francis on part of his Israel itinerary — the first time a senior Lebanese Christian religious figure visited Israel since Israel’s independence in 1948, according to the German news agency DPA.
FRANCIS arrived in the region on Saturday, May 24, which he spent in Amman. He then 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 later on Sunday and spent the afternoon meeting with his Eastern Orthodox counterpart, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, and visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
His itinerary on Monday included visits to the Western Wall and Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, where he gave a speech condemning anti-Semitism and hatred.
The pope began his day with a visit to the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock, where he met with the Grand Mufti Muhammad Ahmad Hussein of Jerusalem, the highest Muslim religious authority there.
He then went to the adjacent Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, where he prayed and left a note. He also met with Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz.
Francis also visited the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, and made an unplanned stop at a memorial for victims of terror.
At Yad Vashem, the pope met with Holocaust survivors, laid a wreath and said, “Never again, L-rd, never again.”
Francis also met with Israel’s chief rabbis, David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef, as well as a group of sick Christian-Arab Israelis before traveling to Peres’ official residence.
The pope arrived in Israel Sunday afternoon, where he gave a speech at Ben Gurion Airport before meeting with his Eastern Orthodox counterpart, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The two leaders signed a joint declaration and called for greater Christian unity.
“I greet all the people of Israel with prayerful good wishes that their aspirations of peace and prosperity will achieve fulfillment,” Francis said at the airport.
“We all know how urgent is the need for peace, not only for Israel but also for the entire region. May efforts and energies be increasingly directed to the pursuit of a just and lasting solution to the conflicts which have caused so much suffering.”
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 Pope Francis offered rich words of praise for Israel’s leaders.
“Mr. President, you know that I pray for you and I know that you are praying for me,” Francis said in his speech at Peres’ residence. “I assure you of my continued prayers for the institutions and the citizens of the State of Israel.”