2016-07-27
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JERUSALEM, March 26 (RNS)--In an unprecedented gesture of reconciliation between Catholics and Jews, Pope John Paul II ended his weeklong Holy Land pilgrimage Sunday by praying at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, where he placed a plea for forgiveness and brotherhood between its ancient stones.

The pope left Israel aboard an El Al jetliner shortly after 7:30 p.m. (12:30 p.m. EST) for the three-hour-and-45-minute flight to Rome's Ciampino Airport. At the top of the boarding stairs, he turned, waved, and shook his clasped hands in a victory gesture.

Israeli President Ezer Weizman and Prime Minister Ehud Barak saw the pope off at Ben Gurion International Airport in a ceremony that mirrored the pomp on his arrival from Jordan Monday, complete with red carpet, flags, flowers, balloons, military band, and honor guard. There were no speeches, but John Paul shook hands with dozens of cabinet ministers, ambassadors, religious leaders, and other dignitaries.

John Paul ended his weeklong pilgrimage to the Holy Land by visiting the places that are holiest to Jerusalem's Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

In addition to visiting the Western Wall, he met with the Muslim Grand Mufti of Jerusalem on the Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, where the Al-Aksa and Dome of the Rock mosques stand. The site is known to Jews as the Temple Mount for the biblical temples that once stood there.

John Paul also celebrated Mass in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built over the traditional sites of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

"These have been days of intense emotion," the 79-year-old pontiff told worshippers in the 12th-century Crusader-era church in Jerusalem's Old City.

John Paul, dressed in the purple penitential vestments of Lent, was led to the church by two men in traditional Turkish costume who pounded on the ground with their staffs to announced the arrival of a bishop--in this case the bishop of Rome.

Entering the church by a specially constructed ramp, he paused to pray and kiss the stone at the place were it is believed that Jesus' body was laid after he was taken from the cross. The pope paused again to enter the narrow opening of the Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea and pray at the place where Jesus was buried.

"Following the path of salvation history, as narrated in the Apostles' Creed, my Jubilee pilgrimage has brought me to the Holy Land," he said in his homily. "From Nazareth, where Jesus was conceived of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, I have reached Jerusalem, where he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. Here in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I kneel before the place of his burial."

Among leaders of other rites attending the Mass were Patriarchs Diodoros I of the Greek Orthodox Church and Torkom Mangoogian of the Armenian Apostolic Church, with whom the Vatican had to negotiate for the right to use the sanctuary, which is their common property within the denominationally divided Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

On his last day in Jerusalem, the Roman Catholic pontiff was at the center of the religion-tinged political controversy that is endemic to the city, fought over for centuries by the three monotheistic religions.

As John Paul arrived for his meeting with the Grand Mufti, Sheikh Ikrema Sabri, Palestinians floated the red, white, green, and black Palestinian flag attached to balloons over the Haram al-Sharif in a demonstration apparently sanctioned by the Palestinian National Authority.

Islamic officials removed a blue and white Israeli flag, flying with the yellow and white flag of the Vatican, from the pope's car during his visit.

After John Paul left, Palestinian youths threw stones at Palestinian Minister for Jerusalem Faisal Husseini, who was part of the reception committee. The youths branded the pope "a Satanic influence and an agent of the United States."

Israeli authorities deployed a heavy security force on the Haram al-Sharif platform for the first time since violent clashes there in 1990.

The pontiff drove directly from the mosque to the Western Wall below for a brief ceremony at Judaism's holiest place. The wall is all that remains of the Second Temple, built some 70 years after the Babylonians destroyed King Solomon's First Temple in 586 B.C.E. The Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E.

Jews have prayed for thousands of years before the wall, which also contains stones from the First Temple of 3,000 years ago.

Standing on a blue carpet, Israeli flags fluttering in the breeze, the pope and Israeli Cabinet Minister Rabbi Michael Melchoir recited the 122nd Psalm, the pope speaking in Latin, Melchoir in Hebrew.

Israeli officials said the psalm was chosen because it contains a prayer for Jerusalem: "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; those who love you will be serene. May there be peace within your walls, serenity within your palaces."

After reciting the psalm, the elderly and ailing ponitiff walked slowly to the wall and prayed with bent head. Then, following Jewish custom, he placed a prayer in a crevase in the stones and stood for a time with his trembling left hand touching the wall.

The prayer was a copy of the apology the pope made to Jews at a Day of Pardon Mass in St. Peter's Square March 12. The pope called the Day of Pardon on the first Sunday of the penitential season of Lent to apologize for the sins of the "sons and daughters" of the church at the start of the third millennium of Christianity.

"God of our fathers," it said, "you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations: We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant."

"We welcome your coming here as the realization of a commitment of the Catholic Church to end the era of hatred, humiliation, and persecution of the Jewish people," Melchoir told John Paul.

"According to our tradition, God's presence has never budged from this Western Wall," Melchoir said, "In the torturous dungeons of the Inquisitions, while awaiting the hangman's noose, when cramped in cattle cars bound for Auschwitz, Treblinka, or Maidanek, and in the heat of battle defending our state, Jews have longed for and prayed toward this holy place."

Melchoir said the government of Israel and the Jewish people commit themselves "to end the manipulation of the sanctity of Jerusalem for political gain."

Sheikh Ikrema Sabri, who as Grand Mufti is Jerusalem's highest Muslim authority, said in interviews on the eve of his meeting with the pope that the figure of 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust was inflated. Both Israeli and Vatican officials ignored the statement, and Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert said it was "not new to Israeli ears."

Sabri and a crowd of Muslim clerics and Palestinian officials received the pontiff with warm handshakes on the broad, stone-paved platform outside the Al-Aska Mosque, which stands on the foundations of an 8th-century mosque.

It was given its name, which in Arabic means the "furthest mosque," because according to tradition, it is the place furthest from Mecca to which the Prophet Muhammad was miraculously transported.

The pope did not enter the mosque, where non-Muslims are forbidden to pray or meditate, but met with Sabri in his adjacent office. Jerusalem, he said, "forms part of the common patrimony of our religions and of the whole of humanity.

Sabri, in return, appealed to John Paul to help the Palestinians secure East Jerusalem as the capital of an independent Palestinian state. Visiting Bethlehem, capital of the Palestinian Authority on Tuesday, the pope supported the Palestinians' right to self-determination but did not enter into the dispute over Jerusalem.

Israel has claimed that the city followed the 1967 Arab-Israeli war as its "eternal and undivided capital." The pope has called repeatedly for a special statute to make Jerusalem an international city open to all three religions.

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