Pope Francis repeats calls for peace in troubled region

Having stepped into the cauldron of the Middle East, Pope Francis began to feel the heat Monday, but he sought to keep to his basic message of peace despite the contentious politics of that troubled region.

At the request of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Francis adjusted his Monday schedule to add a stop at Israel’s memorial to Jewish victims of terrorism. Netanyahu apparently hoped the stop would counter the images of Francis’ dramatic Sunday prayer at the wall separating Jerusalem from the occupied West Bank.

A Vatican spokesman said the pope was glad to comply with the request on behalf of all victims of terror, to underscore his view that “terrorism is a way without end.”

While Muslim leaders bluntly criticized Israel’s occupation during Francis’ visit to Islam’s Dome of the Rock on Monday, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the pope’s response was another visual highlight of the three-day trip: his public, interfaith embrace of two old Argentinian friends, a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim, in front of Jerusalem’s nearby Western Wall.

The third and final day of Francis’ Middle East visit was a day of touching bases at sites important to both Muslims and Jews, and repeating his request that both sides have “the courage to be generous” in search of peace.

Thus, when Netanyahu reportedly explained to him Israel’s view that the massive wall — which the pope so dramatically highlighted during his Sunday visit to Bethlehem — prevents terrorist violence, Francis did not debate the point but held to his long-range vision of a region at peace and without a wall, Lombardi said.

At the terror memorial, Netanyahu showed the pope a section dedicated to the victims of the 1994 bombing of a Jewish association in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people. Francis was an auxiliary bishop there at the time.

The pope’s last day in the Middle East included visits to a list of major religious and secular sites: Islam’s Dome of the Rock, also revered by Jews as the Temple Mount; the Western Wall; the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism; Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial; and the memorial to Jewish victims of terror.

Francis also met Israel’s two chief rabbis and celebrated a final Mass in the building Christians revere as the site of the Last Supper.

On Sunday he had celebrated Mass in Bethlehem, where Monsignor Christopher Nalty, pastor of Good Shepherd Parish in New Orleans, was among scores of concelebrating priests.

During his morning visit to the Western Wall, the pope, like millions of other supplicants, wrote a prayer — in this case the “Our Father,” Lombardi said — and inserted it among the ancient stones.

When he was done he embraced two old friends, Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Omar Abboud, a leader of Argentina’s Muslim community, whom he had invited to make the trip.

Later, in the crushing gloom of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, Francis kissed the hands of six Holocaust survivors whose families were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.

The pope used words from the third chapter of Genesis to grapple with the depravity of the Holocaust.

“Adam, where are you?” he asked, using the words God uses after Adam’s catastrophic sin in the biblical account. “Of what horror have you been capable? What made you fall to such depths?” the pope asked.

“Who convinced you that you were god? Not only did you torture and kill your brothers and sisters, but you sacrificed them to yourself, because you made yourself a god.”

“Never again, Lord,” he said. “Never again.”

Later, Francis met privately — and warmly, Lombardi said — with Israeli President Shimon Peres, who has accepted the pope’s invitation to join Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to pray for peace at the Vatican.

The Vatican spokesman said Francis has no particular peace formula to advance.

He invited Peres and Abbas to join him to pray for peace because “we know through common prayer we revive the prospects for peace,” Lombardi said. “The pope’s instrument is prayer, which encourages attitudes that lead to peace.”

At Peres’ residence, Francis called the Israeli president “a good and wise man.” He urged Palestinians and Israelis to refrain from provocative acts and to form a basis for peace. And as he has done several times on this trip, he pleaded that minority Christians in the region be allowed to participate in society as full citizens.

Francis met later with Netanyahu and with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, “first among equals” among the various patriarchs of 300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians.

An earlier meeting of the two men Sunday was the original reason for Francis’ trip. The two leaders pledged to keep their faith communities oriented toward healing a 1,000-year-old breach in the Christian world.

The pope ended his trip by celebrating Mass at the Cenacle, revered by Christians as the site of the Last Supper and by many Jews as the site of King David’s tomb.