"We guard the rights of Christians in Israel. That unfortunately does not exist in many places in the Middle East. Even Bethlehem, where your holiness visited, Jesus' birthplace, has become...a Muslim city," Netanyahu said.
Hana Bendcowsky, an expert in Jewish-Christian relations, said Netanyahu's figures were somewhat misleading. She said the Christian population's growth is mostly due to Israel's granting residency to about 10,000 Palestinian Christians when it captured east Jerusalem in 1967, and some 30,000 Christians who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union because of Jewish family ties. These Soviet immigrants have generally been absorbed into the Jewish majority.
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, and 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' residence.
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 Mohammad 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 neighbors.
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.
Associated Press reporters Daniel Estrin and Josef Federman contributed to this report. Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield
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