Pope Francis prayed on Monday at a flashpoint Muslim-Jewish sacred site on the final day of a Holy Land pilgrimage filled with calls for bridging divisions within Christianity, between religions, and between Israelis and Palestinians.
He visited al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem on the site Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary and Jews call the Temple Mount. There Pope Francis urged a rejection of violence in a meeting with the Sunni cleric in charge of the city’s Islamic sites.
“May no one abuse the name of God through violence,” the pontiff told the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Mohammad Hussein, on the site where Muslims believe their Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven and which is also the most sacred site in Judaism.
The mufti is considered a moderate, but in 2006 after his appointment by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during the second Palestinian uprising, he was criticized for calling suicide bombings “legitimate resistance.” Israel, for its part, was slammed by the Palestinian Authority and Jordan for taking the top cleric in for questioning over rioting at the site last year.
The Pope then prayed at the Western Wall, the remnant of the wall that surrounded the courtyard of the Jewish Temple, which is also on the Temple Mount. Pope Francis placed a note between the wall’s ancient stones after a Jewish official explained the history of the temple, first built according to the Bible by King Solomon, destroyed, rebuilt and ultimately destroyed in AD 70 by the Romans.
Pope Francis’ next stop in Jerusalem was Mount Herzl for a wreath-laying ceremony at the grave of Zionist leader Theodor Herzl, a first for a pontiff. He also made a short, off-schedule detour to a monument remembering the victims of terrorist attacks.
An Israeli official said on the condition of anonymity that the detour was made on the request by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The visit to the monument, which is within walking distance of Herzl’s grave, came a day after another unannounced detour to the Israeli-built West Bank wall. Israel said it keeps suicide bombers and other Palestinian attackers away from Israeli cities and large settlement blocks. For Palestinians, it is a symbol of oppression.
The pope then visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. Francis, who started his pilgrimage in Jordan on Saturday, surprised his hosts on Sunday by making an unannounced detour to the security barrier that Israel has built in and around the West Bank, and by inviting Palestinian and Israeli presidents Mahmoud Abbas and Shimon Peres to the Vatican for a joint prayer session. Another unusual move is that he is being accompanied on his three-day trip by a rabbi and Muslim cleric, friends from his home country of Argentina.
After meeting Israel’s two chief rabbis at a synagogue, Pope Francis is to be hosted by Peres at his presidential residence before a papal audience with Netanyahu at a Jerusalem pilgrims hospice.
Before flying back to Rome in the late evening, he is scheduled to hold a third meeting with his Orthodox counterpart, Patriarch Bartholomew, and to celebrate Mass at the so-called Cenacle in Jerusalem, a room in an ancient building where Christians believe the Last Supper was held.
In Bethlehem on Sunday, he called on Israeli and Palestinian leaders to make sacrifices for peace and celebrated Mass in a packed and festive Manger Square. He then flew from the West Bank city to Tel Aviv for an official welcoming ceremony by Israeli leaders before travelling by helicopter to Jerusalem, where, with Bartholomew, he celebrated the reconciliation between the eastern and western churches 50 years ago.
The anniversary of the effort to end a 1,000-year schism between Latin and Orthodox Christianity has been billed by the Vatican as the official highlight of the pilgrimage.