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JERUSALEM — Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday (May 12) prayed at the Western Wall and visited the nearby Dome of the Rock, two disputed pieces of holy ground that are sacred to both Muslims and Jews, as controversy continued to overshadow the pope’s weeklong pilgrimage.
Benedict paused in prayer after he inserted a written prayer, known as a “kvitel,” in the cracks of the wall that is the last surviving piece of the Jewish Temple.
“I bring with you the joys, the hopes and the aspirations, the trials, the suffering and the pain of all your people throughout the world,” a portion of the prayer said. “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, hear the cry of the afflicted, the fearful, the bereft.”
Yet controversy continued to trail the pope after his visit Monday to Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, where some Israeli leaders accused the German-born pontiff of glossing over Nazi atrocities that killed 6 million Jews.
“With all due respect to the Holy See, we cannot ignore the burden he bears, as a young German who joined the Hitler Youth and as a person who joined Hitler’s army, which was an instrument in the extermination,”
Reuven Rivlin, speaker of the Israeli parliament, told Israel Radio on Tuesday.
“He came and told us as if he were a historian, someone looking in from the sidelines, about things that should not have happened. And what can you do? He was a part of them.”
Those comments sparked a sharp retort from the Vatican’s top spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, who said “the pope has said he never, never was a member of the Hitler Youth, which was a movement of fanatical volunteers.”
The pope has said previously that he was drafted into the Hitler Youth movement, as were all young German men at the time, but that he did not participate in their activities.
Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, a survivor of the Holocaust, and chairperson of the Yad Vashem Council, said after the papal visit, “Something was missing. There was no mention of the Germans or the Nazis who participated in the butchery, not a word of regret. If not an apology, then an expression of remorse (was needed).”
Benedict’s own history, and his sometimes tense relations with Jewish and Muslim leaders, has overshadowed his first pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Seeking to patch over relations with Jewish groups, Benedict met with Israel’s chief rabbis on Tuesday after his visit to the Western Wall.
During that meeting, Benedict stressed the church’s “irrevocable” commitment to building bridges with Judaism. The pope’s decision earlier this year to lift the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop angered many Jewish leaders, prompting some to question the pope’s commitment to interfaith relations.
The centuries-long struggle between Jews and Muslims here has provided the backdrop for Benedict’s itinerary. He started his day at the Dome of the Rock, located just above the Western Wall, where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.
It was the first time a pope had visited the holy site, and only the third time a pope had stepped foot inside a Muslim house of prayer.
Benedict visited the famed Blue Mosque in Istanbul in 2006, and his predecessor, John Paul II, visited a mosque in Syria in 2001.
“Here the paths of the world’s three great monotheistic religions meet, reminding us what they share in common,” Benedict said during a meeting with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammad Ahmad Hussein. “In a world sadly torn by divisions, this sacred place serves as a stimulus, and also challenges men and women of good will to overcome misunderstandings and conflicts of the past.”
During the visit to the Dome of the Rock, Benedict removed his shoes in a customary sign of respect; he had drawn the scorn of some Muslim leaders for not removing his shoes during a visit to a mosque in Jordan on Saturday.
The pope later turned his attention to the region’s dwindling Christian community, meeting with as many as 3,000 Christians near the Garden of Gethsemane, where Christians believe Jesus prayed before his trial and crucifixion.
“I am standing before you today and I wish to acknowledge the difficulty, pain and suffering you have endured as a result of the conflict that has afflicted this land,” the pope said. “My presence here is a sign that you are not forgotten. You are integral to the future precisely because of your deep roots and your deep faith.”
Gethsemane is in East Jerusalem, which Israel captured during the
1967 Middle East War. The Vatican does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over this part of the city, which the Palestinians hope will be the capital of their future state.
In contrast to the pope, who appeared to go out of his way not to criticize the Israeli authorities, Fouad Twal, the Latin (Catholic) Patriarch of Jerusalem, blamed the Israeli occupation for the majority of his community’s problems.
Referring to the persecution of Jesus 2,000 years ago, Twal, only the second Arab to serve as patriarch, said Tuesday, “In many ways the situation has not changed. The suffering of the Palestinian people who dream of living in a free and independent Palestinian state still continues.”
The pope called on Jews, Christians and Muslims to find a way towards peace.
“The Holy Land has room for everyone,” he said.
On Wednesday, it will be the Palestinians’ turn to host the pope, who will celebrate Mass and visit a Palestinian refugee camp in Bethlehem, the city of Jesus’ birth.
c. 2009 Religion News Service
(Luigi Sandri writes for Ecumenical News International, based in Geneva.)
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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