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Pope wraps up delicate Mideast pilgrimage

By Aron Heller

Associated Press

Published: Monday, May 26 2014 5:11 p.m. MDT

Pope Francis prays in front of the Western Wall, in Jerusalem's Old City, Monday, May 26, 2014. Pope Francis has prayed at Jerusalem's Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray, bowing his head as he touched the wall in the same gesture used a day earlier to pray at the Israeli barrier surrounding the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem.

Oded Balilty, Associated Press

JERUSALEM — Pope Francis wrapped up his Mideast pilgrimage Monday with a balancing act of symbolic and sometimes spontaneous gestures to press his call for peace between Israel and the Palestinians and friendship between Jews and Muslims in the land of Jesus' birth.

A day after he boosted Palestinian aspirations by praying at Israel's security barrier surrounding Bethlehem, Francis honored Holocaust victims by kissing the hands of several survivors, and accepted Israel's last-minute request to pray at a memorial to victims of suicide bombings and other attacks.

But the image that the Vatican hopes will define the trip, and perhaps Francis' young papacy, was another: that of the leader of the 1.2 billion strong Roman Catholic Church embracing his Argentine friends, a rabbi and a Muslim, in front of the Western Wall, adjacent to the disputed hilltop compound that lies at the heart of decades of Israel-Arab tensions.

After visiting the golden-topped Dome of the Rock shrine on the compound on Monday morning, Francis prayed at the nearby Western Wall, leaving a hand-written note with the "Our Father" prayer written in his native Spanish in between the cracks of stone.

When he finished, a visibly emotional Francis embraced Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Omar Abboud, a leader of Argentina's Muslim community, both of whom joined Francis on his official delegation in a potent symbol of interfaith friendship.

"I think this was the real answer to such problems that come from very long and profound difficulties," the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said of the embrace. "What can we do? We can pray. We can ask God to help us. We can love mutually and then embrace."

That logic lies at the heart of Francis' surprise invitation to the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to come to the Vatican next month to pray for peace. The invitation was a dramatic — but very Franciscan — initiative that confirmed that the pope who named himself after the peace-loving St. Francis of Assisi feels free and even obliged to pursue any initiative that might benefit peace.

Francis made a similar foray into world diplomacy last year when he rallied millions of people to fast and pray for a peaceful resolution to threatened U.S.-led military strikes on Syria. More recently, the Vatican has intervened directly in Venezuela's unrest by participating in talks between the government and the opposition.

In the case of the Vatican prayer meeting, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres readily accepted the invitation, and Peres and Francis discussed the encounter during a lengthy meeting at the president's office.

"The humility in your nature and the power in your spirit raised a spiritual elation and a thirst for peace," Peres told him at a ceremony in the garden of the presidential residence.

The prospects of a breakthrough at the Vatican meeting next month are slim. Peres, a 90-year-old Nobel peace laureate, holds a largely ceremonial office and is set to step down this summer. But the pope's gesture seemed to send a powerful message to the region's leaders not to give up, weeks after the latest round of peace talks collapsed.

The atmosphere was starkly different in Francis' one-on-one with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has expressed anger with politicians who have reached out to Abbas at a time when the Palestinian leader is reconciling with the Islamic militant group Hamas. Israel considers Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, a terrorist group.

In his talks with Francis, Netanyahu lauded Israel's treatment of Christians and defended its West Bank separation barrier. Israel says the structure is a security measure. The Palestinians say it has gobbled up their land and stifled their economy.

"When incitement and terror against Israel stops, there won't be the need for the security fence which has saved thousands of lives," Netanyahu said.

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