Pope Benedict ends Holy Land pilgrimage with call for peace
JERUSALEM -- Pope Benedict XVI ended his pilgrimage to the Holy Land Friday with a stirring call for peace at the site of Jesus' crucifixion and then made an emotional appeal to Israel and the Palestinians: "No more bloodshed. No more fighting. No more terrorism. No more war."
After a weeklong struggle to get his message across through a din of Israeli criticism and Palestinian protest against Israel, Benedict delivered his strongest words yet on the Jewish state's right to exist and the Palestinians' right to a country of their own.
"Let it be universally recognized that the state of Israel has the right to exist, and to enjoy peace and security within internationally agreed borders," Benedict said on the airport tarmac before boarding a plane to Rome.
"Let it be likewise acknowledged that the Palestinian people have a right to a sovereign independent homeland," he said.
Benedict's message on the last day of his trip was that peace is possible.
"The Gospel reassures us that God can make all things new, that history need not be repeated," the pope said.
Among other goals, Benedict's trip was meant to further the Roman Catholic Church's outreach to Jews and Muslims and support the beleaguered Christian communities of the Holy Land. The pope appeared to make headway on those fronts, though his visit lacked the historic resonance of his predecessor Pope John Paul II's pilgrimage nine years earlier.
Benedict pleased Palestinians with his repeated calls for an independent Palestinian state, his visit to a refugee camp and his comments lamenting Israel's West Bank separation barrier.
Israelis gave the German-born pontiff mixed reviews, criticizing his failure to express remorse for Christian anti-Semitism in his speech at Yad Vashem, the country's national Holocaust memorial, as John Paul had done.
During his eight-day visit, Benedict placed a handwritten prayer in the Western Wall, part of Judaism's holiest site. He took off his shoes to enter the Dome of the Rock, where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven, and quietly prayed at the site of Jesus' birth.
But there were reminders of Mideast strife at every step, and in the end Benedict's trip was as much political as it was spiritual.
Benedict sat through a tirade by an angry Muslim cleric who commandeered a microphone at an interfaith meeting. He was subjected to a barrage of criticism in Israeli newspapers for his Yad Vashem speech. To get to Bethlehem, the city of Jesus' birth, he passed through an opening in the massive concrete wall Israel has erected in the West Bank.
In his farewell speech at the airport, the pope called the wall "one of the saddest sights" he had seen during his visit.
"As I passed alongside it, I prayed for a future in which the peoples of the Holy Land can live together in peace and harmony without the need for such instruments of security and separation," said Benedict, who called for an end to bloodshed and terrorism.
Israel began building the barrier during a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings to keep assailants out. Palestinians see it as a land grab because its route is largely inside the West Bank, territory that they want, together with the Gaza Strip, as part of a future Palestinian state.
Benedict made strong appeals for such a state upon landing in Israel and upon departing -- both times just yards from Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's hard-line prime minister who resists the notion.
The timing was crucial, coming ahead of a planned trip by Netanyahu to Washington next week and days after the Israeli leader traveled to Egypt and Jordan and heard similar appeals that he accept a two-state solution.
Benedict's remarks on the Holocaust, not Mideast peacemaking, were what captured the most attention in Israel.
As a German who was forced to join the Hitler Youth, Benedict would have had a hard time winning over Israelis no matter what he said about the Nazi genocide of 6 million Jews.
Earlier this year, the pontiff outraged Jews when he lifted the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop, adding to a long-festering dispute between the Vatican and Jewish leaders over whether the World War II-era pope, Pius XII, did enough to save Jews.
So when Benedict stood at Yad Vashem's podium Monday and did not apologize or say the words "murder" or "Nazi," he was widely criticized.
Benedict's final speech at Tel Aviv's airport seemed aimed at addressing some of that criticism. Jews, he said, were "brutally exterminated under a godless regime."
Rabbi Ron Kronish, a leader of interfaith relations in Israel, said the pope was being unfairly disparaged.
"The gesture is what counts here, not this word or that word," he said. "The critical thing is that he went to Yad Vashem, he stood in the Hall of Remembrance and he went to the Western Wall."
During the farewell ceremony, Israeli President Shimon Peres was also generous in his praise of Benedict, calling the pontiff's trip "a profound demonstration of the enduring dialogue between the Jewish people and the hundreds of millions of Christian believers throughout the world."
Earlier Friday, Benedict entered the Church of the Holy Sepulcher escorted by black-robed clergy rhythmically banging staffs on the ground to announce his approach.
He knelt and kissed the rectangular stone on which Jesus' body is said to have been placed after the crucifixion. Then he entered the structure that marks the site of Jesus' tomb and knelt inside alone, hands clasped, as priests chanted nearby.
Associated Press Writer Victor L. Simpson contributed to this report.