Pope Francis continues efforts to bridge Middle East divide as he visits Israeli memorial day after praying at West Bank wall

Francis has invited presidents from the two sides of the ongoing conflict to the Vatican to pray for peace

Jerusalem

Pope Francis visited an Israeli memorial on Monday – a day after making an unscheduled stop at an Israeli-built barrier abhorred by Palestinians.

Francis’ three-day tour to the Middle East has been defined by his unexpected intervention 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.

On Sunday the Pope had appeared to deliver a powerful boost of support to Palestinians when he disembarked from his popemobile to pray at the hulking concrete wall, daubed with anti-Israeli graffiti, which separates Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

 

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.

But Francis demonstrated his desire to appease both sides in the conflict; his visit to Israel’s “Memorial to the Victims of Terror” on Monday came at the request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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

The Pope was quoted by Israeli officials as saying: “Terror is absolutely evil. It comes from evil and causes evil.” He also laid a wreath at the grave of the Zionist leader Theodor Herzl, a move that was taken as signalling  a softening in the Vatican’s stance of past opposition to Jewish statehood.

Pope Francis started the last leg of his tour 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.

The Pope then visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum which commemorates some six million Jews slaughtered during World War Two. Speaking minutes after landing in Israel on Sunday, Francis had 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.”

The Pope kissed the hands of six Holocaust survivors before his speech at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum.

Rather than broach the often-asked question of where was God during the genocide, the 77-year-old Pope asked: “Man, where are you? Who corrupted you, who distorted you, who convinced you that you were God? Not only did you torture and murder your brothers but you made them into a sacrifice for yourself.”

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 Reuters

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