Pope visits Jerusalem's holy sites

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The Independent Online

Pope Benedict visited holy sites in Jerusalem at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today as part of a pilgrimage marred by Jewish disappointment over his remarks on the Holocaust.

The German-born pope visited the Western Wall, a remnant of the Roman-era Temple complex that is Judaism's holiest place, after meeting the Grand Mufti, Palestinians' senior Muslim cleric, at the Dome of the Rock which dominates the Old City.

With the mufti, he recalled the common roots of all three monotheistic religions in the story of Abraham and Jerusalem. He was due to place a written prayer in the Western Wall, a traditional gesture, and then to meet Israel's two chief rabbis.

In a radio interview, the speaker of Israel's parliament, Reuven Rivlin, berated the pontiff over his comments on Monday at the Yad Vashem memorial to the six million Jews killed in the Nazi Holocaust.

"He came and told us as if he were a historian, someone looking in from the sidelines, about something that should not have happened. And what can you do? He was a part of them," Rivlin said.

At Yad Vashem, the pontiff spoke of the "horrific tragedy of the Shoah", the Hebrew term for the Holocaust, but disappointed some Jewish religious leaders who said he should have apologised as a German and a Christian for the genocide.

"With all due respect to the Holy See, we cannot ignore the burden he bears, as a young German who joined the Hitler Youth and as a person who joined Hitler's army, which was an instrument in the extermination," Rivlin said.

Pope Benedict, born Joseph Ratzinger, was a teenage member of the Hitler Youth, when enrolment was compulsory, and drafted into German forces in World War Two.

On the second day of his pilgrimage in Jerusalem, the pope visited powerful symbols of Judaism and Islam in a city that Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital.

The Dome stands at the spot where all three great monotheistic religions believe Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son to God, before an angel stayed his hand. King Solomon and his successors built Jewish temples there before the Romans razed the Second Temple in 70 AD and Jews scattered in exile.

In the 7th century, Islamic conquerors built the first Dome on the spot, where Muslims also believe Mohammad ascended to heaven. The area around, including the al-Aqsa mosque and known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, has been a focus of tensions since Israeli forces captured Jerusalem's Old City in 1967.

When Israeli leader Ariel Sharon walked through what is known to Jews as the Temple Mount in 2000, Palestinian anger turned into several years of bloody uprising, or Intifada, against occupation. Sharon went on to become prime minister.

The pope will later pray at the site of Jesus's Last Supper with his disciples before his crucifixion and resurrection, the key to Jerusalem's importance for Christians, before saying Mass for thousands of worshippers at the Garden of Gethsemane.

Arriving on Monday after three days in Jordan, Pope Benedict found his efforts to heal differences with Jews and Muslims challenged by both Israeli disappointment and by a fiery anti-Israel address, delivered in his presence by a Palestinian Muslim cleric, which annoyed both the Vatican and Israelis.