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Pope navigates minefield of symbols in Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Source: Reuters - Mon, 26 May 2014 07:44 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Francis has packed mix of political, religious meetings

* To see Jews, Muslims, Christians before flying home (Recasts with start of Monday events)

By Crispian Balmer and Philip Pullella

JERUSALEM, May 26 (Reuters) - Pope Francis, at the request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, visited on Monday Israel's "Memorial to the Victims of Terror", a day after praying at an Israeli security wall abhorred by Palestinians.

The impromptu visit to the monument appeared to be an attempt to appease his Israeli hosts following the surprise stop at the hulking concrete barrier, daubed with anti-Israeli graffiti, which separates Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

Netanyahu's office said in a statement that Francis was prompted by the prime minister to stop at the stone and marble memorial, which is engraved with the names of Israeli civilians killed mainly in attacks by Palestinian militants.

Israel says its barrier in the occupied West Bank was erected to safeguard national security after a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings a decade ago. Palestinians see it as an attempt to grab land they seek for a future state.

The pope on Sunday had unexpectedly intervened in flailing diplomatic efforts to end the generations-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, inviting the presidents from the two sides to the Vatican to pray for peace.

Both Shimon Peres, who plays no decision-making role in Israeli diplomacy, and Mahmoud Abbas accepted the offer, but there was little hope that the unusual initiative could break decades of mutual mistrust and deadlock.

Pope Francis start the last leg of his three-day tour of the Middle East, at the golden-topped Dome of the Rock, taking off his shoes before walking into the shrine from which Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammad climbed to heaven.

Afterwards, he went to pray at the adjacent Western Wall, one the Jews' most revered shrines and a sole remnant of their sacred Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.

Like many visitors, he tucked a small written message between the ancient stones before walking away. The content was not immediately revealed.

HOLOCAUST

In a decision that delighted his hosts, Francis later laid a wreath at the tomb of Theodor Herzl, who is seen as the founder of modern Zionism that led to Israel's foundation.

The Catholic Church initially opposed the creation of a Jewish state, and the three other pontiffs who have come to Jerusalem over the past 50 years did not visit the site.

The pope then visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum which commemorates some 6 million Jews slaughtered during World War Two, kissing the hands of survivors in a sombre chamber of remembrance lit by a memorial flame.

Speaking minutes after landing in Israel on Sunday, Francis called the Holocaust "an enduring symbol of the depths to which human evil can sink", adding: "I beg God that there will never be another such crime."

Religion plays a high profile role in Monday's packed timetable, with the pope due to celebrate Mass in the Cenacle - a room just outside the walls of the Old City where Christians believe Jesus held the Last Supper with his disciples.

It is located on the second floor of an old stone building, above a cavern where some Jews believe King David is buried.

Speculation that Israeli officials were set to hand the Cenacle over to the Church has sparked protests by Jewish nationalists. Police arrested 26 people at a rowdy demonstration early on Sunday ahead of the pope's visit.

Israel denies it plans to relinquish control of the site.

Some 8,000 police are on hand to guarantee the pope's security following recent vandalism of church property blamed on Jewish extremists. Roads will be closed and shopkeepers in parts of the Old City have complained of being forced to shutter their stores all day to keep the stone streets empty. (Additional reporting by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller)

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