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Papal visit

nt/pfd, Reuters/dpa/AP/AFP
May 11, 2009

Pope Benedict XVI is on his first trip to Israel. He has used a speech to seek to heal the wounds created by, among other things, his reinstatement of a Holocaust-denying bishop.

Pope Benedict XVI is flanked by Israel president Shimon Peres, right, and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left
Pope Benedict called on Israeli leaders to find a solution to the Middle East conflictImage: AP

The pope has begun his landmark, five-day trip to Israel and the Palestinian Territories by condemning the Holocaust and lingering anti-Semitism, and calling for a "just and lasting solution" to the Middle East conflict.

"Tragically, the Jewish people have experienced the terrible circumstances of ideologies that deny the fundamental dignity of every human person," he said at Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion Airport.

He then went on to challenge Israel's conservative government by calling for the creation of a Palestinian state.

"I will have the opportunity to honor the memory of the six million Jewish victims of the Shoah," the German-born pope said, using the Hebrew term for the Holocaust, "and to pray that humanity will never again witness a crime of such magnitude."

Benedict, only the third reigning pope to visit the region, said: "I come, like so many others before me, to pray at the holy places, to pray especially for peace - peace in the Holy Land and peace throughout the world."

Pope deplores anti-semitism

Pope Benedict XVI walks with Israeli President Shimon Peres, right
Peres, right, called the pope's visit a "mission of peace"Image: AP

Benedict recently angered many Jews by lifting the excommunication on a Holocaust-denying bishop. He caused further anger by backing the beatification of controversial Nazi-era Pope Pius XII.

"Sadly, anti-Semitism continues to raise its ugly head in parts of the world," said the pontiff, calling this "totally unacceptable" and declaring "every effort" must be made to combat anti-Semitism.

In the 45 years since the Second Vatican Council repudiated the concept of collective Jewish guilt for Christ's death, Catholic-Jewish relations have been haunted by the Holocaust and the question of what the church did, or failed to do, about it.

They went through one of their worst periods after the pope in January lifted the excommunication of four traditionalist bishops, including one who denied that six million Jews were killed.

The Vatican says it had not known enough about that British bishop's past and the church and Jewish religious leaders now hope the issue can be definitively closed with a visit later in the day by the pontiff to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel's memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.

Calls for peace

Pope Benedict XVI, right, shakes hand with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Netanyahu, left, did not directly respond to the pope's call for a Palestinian stateImage: AP

Israeli President Shimon Peres, the country's official head of state whose duties are largely ceremonial, welcomed Pope Benedict, calling his visit to the Holy Land a "mission of peace" and of "planting the seeds of tolerance and uprooting the weeds of fanaticism."

The politically moderate Peres also expressed hope for a lasting peace in the Middle East.

"We've made peace with Egypt and Jordan and we are negotiating peace with the Palestinians. We may also arrive at a comprehensive regional peace here in the near future.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a hardliner, who since taking office in late March following February 10 elections has refrained from openly committing to the establishment of a Palestinian state, did not make a speech at the airport.

"It's a pleasure to welcome you to the Holy Land," he said as he shook Benedict's hand once the pontiff alighted from the Royal Jordanian aircraft, which had flown him from Amman, Jordan, where he had arrived on Friday.

A "religious pilgrimage"

Prince Ghazi bin Mohammed, second left gives Pope Benedict XVI a tour of King Hussein Bin Talal mosque, the biggest and newest in Amman, Jordan
The pope toured a mosque during a visit to JordanImage: AP

The Catholic Church has made a point of emphasizing that this is not a state visit by the head of the Vatican, but a non-political, religious pilgrimage by its spiritual leader.

Yet the visit is being seen as another milestone in Israel-Vatican relations, which have been historically tumultuous and were only formalized in 1993.

The first reigning pope to visit was Paul XI in 1964, who made a one-day stopover from Jordan, but refrained from mentioning Israel by name, or meeting Israeli leaders in Jerusalem. The second was John Paul II, who made a highly successful and emotional visit in 2000.

After his stop at the airport, the pontiff later flew by Israeli military helicopter to Jerusalem.

The pope planned to visit the memorial of Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust remembrance institute. But he had no plans to visit the museum, which accuses Pope Pius XII of being silent in the face of the suffering of the Jews.

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