JERUSALEM – Pope Francis honoured Jews killed in the Holocaust, kissing the hands of six survivors in an emotional ceremony at Israel’s national Holocaust memorial on Monday as he capped a Mideast trip with poignant stops at some of the holiest and most haunting sites for Jews.
At Israel’s request, Francis deviated from his whirlwind itinerary to pray at Jerusalem’s Victims of Acts of Terror Memorial, giving the Jewish state his full attention a day after voicing strong support for the Palestinian cause. The memorial includes the names of hundreds of civilians killed in Palestinian and Arab attacks since 1851.
At the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, Francis prayed before a crypt with ashes of victims and laid a wreath of yellow and white flowers in the “Hall of Remembrance.”
Then one by one, he kissed the hands of a half-dozen Holocaust survivors in a sign of humility and honour as he heard their stories and of loved ones killed by the Nazis during World War II.
“Never again, Lord, never again!” Francis said. “Here we are, Lord, shamed by what man – created in your own image and likeness – was capable of doing.”
He repeated that phrase writing in the memorial’s guest book, adding: “With shame for the fact that man made himself the owner of evil; with shame that man made himself into God and sacrificed his brothers. Never again!! Never again!! Francis. 5.26.2014.”
Joseph Gottdenker, 72, said he briefly told the pope how he was saved as a boy by Catholics who hid him during the Holocaust. Gottdenker, who now lives in Canada, said he was more emotional than he expected to be when he met the pope.
“The Catholic people who saved me and risked the lives of their whole families to save me, they are looking down today and proud to see me meet the leader of their faith,” Gottdenker said after the ceremony.
A day earlier, upon his arrival in Israel after visiting the West Bank, Francis clearly condemned the slaughter of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust, making up for what many Jews felt was a tepid speech from Pope Benedict XVI during his 2009 visit to Yad Vashem.
Earlier Monday, Francis prayed at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray, and left a note with the text of the “Our Father” prayer written in his native Spanish in a crack between the stones.
In the shadow of the wall, Francis embraced his good friend, Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka, and a leader of Argentina’s Muslim community, Omar Abboud, both of whom joined his official delegation for the trip in a sign of interfaith friendship.
Francis’ gesture at the wall and at the terrorism memorial – head bowed in prayer, right hand touching the stone – was the same he used a day earlier when he made an impromptu stop at the Israeli separation barrier surrounding Bethlehem. Israel says the massive concrete barrier is necessary for its security, while the Palestinians say it has engulfed the West Bank land and suffocated the biblical town.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained to Francis Israel’s rationale for building the wall while they were at the terrorism memorial, his office said. Netanyahu asked Francis to add the memorial to his itinerary at the last minute, and showed him the section dedicated to the victims of the 1994 bombing of a Jewish association in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people.
The Argentinian-born Francis was an auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires at the time of the attack and later became archbishop.
“I explained to the pope that constructing the fence (separation barrier) prevented many more victims of Palestinian terror, which continues today,” Netanyahu said.
Francis’ intensely busy trip has been marked by his surprise invitation to the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to come to the Vatican next month to pray for peace. Both men accepted.
Francis and the outgoing Israeli President Shimon Peres spoke about the initiative Monday before planting an olive tree – a sign of peace – in the garden of Peres’ official residence.
Francis praised Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, for his efforts to solve the conflict.
“You are known as a man of peace and a maker of peace, and I express my admiration and thankfulness for your attitude,” Francis said.
“We would be honoured to offer such a prayer either in our home or yours, in accordance with your kind offer,” Peres said.
He said he believed Francis’ visit would contribute to revitalizing the peace process with the Palestinians, “based on two states living in peace, a Jewish state, Israel, and an Arab state, Palestine.”
Francis started the day by taking off his shoes to enter the Dome of the Rock, the iconic shrine located at the third-holiest spot in Islam. The gold-topped dome enshrines the rock where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.
The mosque complex, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount, is at the heart of the territorial and religious disputes between Israel and its Arab neighbours.
Speaking to the grand mufti of Jerusalem and other Muslim authorities, Francis deviated from his prepared remarks to refer not just to his “dear friends” but “dear brothers.”
“May we respect and love one another as brothers and sisters!” he said. “May we learn to understand the suffering of others! May no one abuse the name of God through violence!”
Meeting with Israel’s chief rabbis, Francis called Jews the “older brothers” of Christians.
The pope appeared tired, but holding up well despite the breakneck, back-to-back schedule that took him from the Dome of the Rock to the Western Wall, to Mount Herzl, the Israeli national cemetery named for the father of modern Zionism, and Yad Vashem. Meetings with the Israeli prime minister and local priests were also on the agenda, and finally, Mass in the Room of the Last Supper, where Catholics believe Jesus shared his final meal with his disciples before being crucified.
Francis is due to return to Rome just before midnight.
© The Canadian Press, 2014