"There are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah," the Roman Catholic pontiff told a small group of dignitaries and Holocaust survivors gathered at the hilltop Yad Vashem memorial site. "Only a godless theology could plan and carry out the extermination of a whole people."
But neither the pope nor Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who also spoke, made any mention of the bitter controversy over the wartime role of Pope Pius XII. Some Jewish leaders in Israel and the United States had also expected the pope to amplify on the general apology for anti-Semitism he expressed earlier this month, but that did not happen.
The starkly dramatic ceremony in Yad Vashem's Hall of Remembrance evoked emotion of another kind from the 79-year-old pontiff, who recalled his own memories "of all that happened when the Nazis occupied Poland during the war."
"I remember my Jewish friends and neighbors, some of whom perished, while others survived," he said.
Earlier in the day, John Paul with "deep emotion" celebrated Mass in the Chapel of the Cenaculum, revered by Christians as the Bible's Upper Room, where Jesus met with his disciples for the Last Supper before his death on the cross. John Paul also on Thursday met with Israel's two chief rabbis and attended an interfaith ceremony that included Muslim representatives.
The rabbis unexpectedly proposed that the pope establish a permanent dialogue between the three religions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--that trace their origins to Abraham, the patriarch.
"It came out in the meeting. We proposed that there be a permanent dialogue between all three religions. It is very important," Sephardic Chief Rabbi Bakshi-Doron told Religion News Service.
The pope and the two rabbis met again in late afternoon at an interfaith encounter also attended by Taysir Al Tamimi, the head of the Palestinian Authority court system.
Tamimi, son of an Islamic jihad activist deported to Jordan by Israel in the 1980s, delivered an impassioned--and unscripted--speech claiming Jerusalem as the "eternal capital of Palestine."
The Vatican had hoped that the grand mufti of Jerusalem, the highest Muslim juridical authority in Israel, would represent the Muslim faith, but he declined the invitation.
"He probably thought that the political peace process is not advanced enough to meet with rabbis," said Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein, director of the Elijah School for the Study of Wisdom in World Religion, who organized the encounter.
Tamimi's fiery speech erupted in the middle of an encounter planned as an entirely noncontroversial event, complete with entertainment by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim children.
"I welcome the great guest, your holiness Pope John Paul II, to the eternal capital of Muslims, the eternal capital of Palestine," the cleric said in Arabic. And, to the applause of Muslims in the audience, he demanded the "right of return" for all Palestinians.
Returning to the program as originally planned, Goshen-Gottstein told Tamimi politely that although he did not understand Arabic, he wanted to thank him for his obvious "genuineness and authenticity."
At the start of the ceremony at Yad Vashem, John Paul rekindled an "eternal flame" to make it burn more brightly beside a slab covering the ashes of victims from six death camps. With the help of Cardinals Edward Cassidy, who oversees Catholic-Jewish relations, and Roger Etchegaray, who is in charge of Holy Year celebrations, he laid a wreath on the burial place.
Grim-faced, his head bowed, the pope appeared close to tears as letters written by Holocaust victims before their deaths were read and a cantor sang a prayer for the victims.
John Paul shook hands with the Holocaust survivors, four of them Poles. Among them were a woman whom the pope helped after the liberation of Poland, and Jurik Kluger, a childhood friend from Wadowice who now lives in Rome and often eats Sunday lunch in the Apostolic Palace.
Although the name of Pius XII was not mentioned, it cast a shadow over the ceremony. Many Jews are outraged by the church's plan to beatify Pius XII, who they say remained silent in the face of the Nazi extermination of 6 million Jews. The Vatican contends that only by working behind the scenes could the pope save hundreds of thousands of Jews from the death camps.
John Paul spoke strongly, but in general terms, about the Holocaust and the long history of Catholic anti-Semitism.
"As bishop of Rome and successor of the Apostle Peter, I assure the Jewish people that the Catholic Church, motivated by the Gospel law of truth and love and by no political considerations, is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution, and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place," the pope said.
"Let us build a new future in which there will be no more anti-Jewish feeling among Christians or anti-Christian feeling among Jews, but rather the mutual respect required of those who adore the one Creator and Lord and look to Abraham as our common father in faith."
John Paul, who as a boy sometimes attended synogogue with Jewish friends and played goalkeeper on a Jewish soccer team, has made dialogue with the Jews a hallmark of his papacy. He visited the Auschwitz crematory in 1979 on his first trip to Poland as pope, and he declared anti-Semitism a sin before God.
In 1986, crossing Rome's Tiber River to become the first pope in the history of Christianity to preach in a synagogue, he called Jews "our older brothers in Abraham." In 1998, the Vatican issued the document "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah," which apologized for Catholics who did not help Jews, but disappointed many Jews by defending Pius XII.
"You have done more than anyone else to bring about the historic change in the attitude of the church towards the Jewish people, initiated by the good Pope John XXIII, and to dress the gaping wounds that festered over many bitter centuries," Barak told the pope. He called John Paul's visit to Yad Vashem "a climax of this historic journey of healing."
Church bells pealed as John Paul began his day driven along the narrow streets of the old city of Jerusalem on the fourth day of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in mild and sunny weather.
"Celebrating the Eucharist in the Upper Room in Jerusalem, we are united with the church of every time and place," the pope told the leaders of the six Catholic rites present in Jerusalem and a handful of cardinals, archbishops, and other prelates from the Vatican.
The private Mass in the Cenaculum, as the site is known, was a high point of the pope's spiritual pilgrimage to the Holy Land to mark the start of the third millennium of Christianity. Christians have believed since the end of the third century that this was the room where Jesus celebrated the first Eucharist and created the ordained priesthood.
In his homily in the Cenaculum, John Paul noted that the Christian Eucharist grew out of the Jewish Passover rite. He has attempted throughout his papacy to improve Catholic-Jewish relations by stressing the common biblical roots of the two faiths.
In taking the cup filled with wine, blessing it, and giving it to his disciples, Jesus was re-enacting "part of the Passover rite of the Old Testament" but also proclaiming "the saving mystery of his Passion and death," the pope said.
Repeating the words of the Mass, the pope said that on the night before his death, Jesus said to his disciples, "This is my body, which is given for you."
"It is with deep emotion that we listen once more to these words spoken here in this Upper Room 2,000 years ago," John Paul said. "Since then they have been repeated, generation after generation, by those who share the priesthood of Christ through the sacrament of Holy Orders."
"In a sense, Peter and the Apostles, in the person of their successors, have come back to the Upper Room to profess the unchanging faith of the church," the pontiff said. "For that reason, I wish to sign this year's 'Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday' here in the Upper Room where the one priesthood of Jesus Christ, in which we all share, was instituted."
Sharpshooters were stationed on the roofs and balconies of the honey-colored stone buildings of the old city as the pope passed in a small, silver-colored sedan. They were part of a security force of 5,000 police deployed in Jerusalem in Israel's "Operation Old Friend" to protect the pope.