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Pope Lays Wreath at Tomb of Zionism’s Founder

JERUSALEM — Making history for the second day running, Pope Francis laid a wreath Monday on the grave of the founder of Zionism, becoming the first pope to do so, a gesture of support to Israel after several symbolic signals the day before that lent a spiritual lift to Palestinian aspirations for sovereignty.

At the request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Francis added to his marathon morning in Jerusalem a stop at an Israeli memorial to victims of terrorist attacks, offering some counterbalance to the powerful lift he provided to Palestinians with an unscheduled stop Sunday at the concrete barrier dividing Bethlehem from Jerusalem. Mr. Netanyahu told the pope that building the barrier, which snakes along and through the West Bank, “prevented many more victims that Palestinian terror, which continues today, planned to harm.”

The prime minister pointed out the portion of the memorial, comprising 78 tablets, that commemorates the 85 people killed in a 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in the pope’s native Buenos Aires. “Terrorism is evil, in the origin and in the result — in the origin because it comes from hate, and in the result because it does not build but destroys,” Francis said at the site. “No more terrorism. This is a way that has no end.”

Later, before his one-on-one meeting with the pope, Mr. Netanyahu said there would be “no need” for the barrier if anti-Israel “incitement” and terrorism ceased. “I long for the day in which Pope Francis’ call to recognize the state of Israel, the right of the Jews to a state of their own, to live in security and peace, will be accepted by our neighbors,” he said. “This will bring, if not peace on earth, then at least peace in this part of the earth.”

The memorial was one of several symbolic sites where the pope stopped Monday. He removed his shoes to enter the Dome of the Rock, part of what Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary and Jews call the Temple Mount. He stood for several minutes with his right palm on the ancient stones of the Western Wall before placing a handwritten note — the prayer “Our Father,” in Spanish — between them.

At the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, he kissed the hands of six Holocaust survivors — one saved as a baby by a Catholic family — as he heard their specific stories, and, echoing a Jewish mantra, said, “Never again, Lord, never again!”

“A great evil has befallen us, such as never happened under the heavens,” Francis said, quoting the Bible in remarks part prayer and part poetry. “Grant us the grace to be ashamed of what we men have done.”

He also had a lengthy chat with President Shimon Peres of Israel, who has accepted his invitation for a peace-prayer summit meeting with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority at the Vatican next month.

Asked why Francis had invited Mr. Peres, whose position is largely ceremonial, rather than Mr. Netanyahu, who is Mr. Abbas’s counterpart in peace talks, the Vatican spokesman said that the pope and the Israeli president had developed a warm relationship of “great esteem” and that Mr. Peres had urged him with “great insistence” to visit the Holy Land before his term expires in July.

“The pope has with President Peres a good feeling, this is clear,” the spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, told reporters at a news conference late Sunday. “This is not an exclusion of the other, but there are good premises to pray together with President Peres and Mahmoud Abbas.”

The crammed morning schedule — nine stops in five hours — started the final leg of the 77-year-old pontiff’s three-day sojourn in the Holy Land, which the Vatican had described as a “purely religious” pilgrimage but in which he waded pointedly into the politics of the region.

On Sunday, Francis became the first pope to travel directly into Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory and to call it the “State of Palestine,” affirming the 2012 United Nations resolution upgrading its status. An unscheduled stop provided the defining image of the day, when the pope touched his forehead to the barrier dividing Bethlehem from Jerusalem. Israel calls the barrier essential for its security, while Palestinians loathe it as a symbol of the way the occupation restricts their daily lives.

The itinerary on Monday offered something of a counterpoint, particularly the visit to the grave of Theodor Herzl, whose appeal to Pope Pius X when they met 110 years ago for help in establishing a Jewish state was harshly rejected, with Pius suggesting that Jews convert to Christianity. Flanked by Mr. Peres and Mr. Netanyahu, Francis placed a large ring of yellow and white flowers — Vatican colors — atop the large square tomb, then added a stone, following a Jewish custom, and bowed his head for several minutes.

Stops at Herzl’s grave have recently been added to the routine protocol for visiting heads of state, but Mr. Netanyahu nonetheless embraced Francis’ visit there as a significant step, telling the pope at Sunday’s welcome ceremony in Tel Aviv, “We admired and appreciate your decision.”

In previous papal pilgrimages, the Israel portion of the itinerary proved politically charged.

In 1964, Paul VI outraged Israelis by arriving from Jordan through Megiddo, in the north, rather than Jerusalem. “He spent 11 hours in the country and never mentioned the word ‘Israel,’  ” said Amnon Ramon, a professor of comparative religions at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “It left a sour feeling.”

John Paul II’s visit in 2000 “was a huge revolution,” Dr. Ramon said, particularly his placement of a note committing “to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant” between the stones of the Western Wall.

But Pope Benedict XVI, a German who had been a member of Hitler Youth, angered Israelis in 2009 by failing to apologize in a speech at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. Father Lombardi pointed out that, unlike Benedict, Francis was careful to say specifically that six million Jews had been killed and to use the Hebrew word for the Holocaust, “Shoah.”

Francis also joined the Israeli leaders in condemning Saturday’s killing of at least three people outside the Jewish museum in Brussels, which he called a “criminal act of anti-Semitic hatred.”

Pope Francis, who pleased Jews worldwide by promising to open the church’s archives from the Holocaust era, traveled with a rabbi from Buenos Aires with whom he has written a book and recorded hours of televised conversation. (He also brought an Islamic scholar from Argentina.)

On Sunday, Mr. Netanyahu described Francis’ “special bond with the Jewish nation” and called the visit “a very important chapter in the relationship between Jews and Christians” that dates back two millenniums.

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(via NY Times)