(JTA) — Pope Francis met with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he prepared to end his visit to Israel.
Francis met with Peres at the president’s official residence in Jerusalem, where they exchanged gifts and planted a tree. Peres in a speech praised the pope for his commitment to peace and his strong stance against anti-Semitism.
“I appeal to all the religious and spiritual leaders of our time: Make your voices heard,” Peres said. “With a clear message. Know that you stand as firmly as a rock against any attempt to connect religion to terror. And that you aspire to create a common ground for global, regional and individual peace. We join you with body and soul in the effort to thwart murder and replace it by gates of peace.”
Francis called Peres “a man of peace.” The pope has invited Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to join him at a prayer summit for peace next month in the Vatican.
“Peacemaking demands first and foremost respect for the dignity and freedom of every human person, which Jews, Christians and Muslims alike believe to be created by God and destined to eternal life,” Francis said.
The pope then met Netanyahu for lunch at the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem. In a speech there, Netanyahu criticized anti-Israel incitement in the Arab world and said Israel’s security fence in the West Bank was necessary. A day earlier, Francis stopped to pray at the barrier during his visit to Bethlehem.
“We also hope that your call for tolerance, coexistence and an end to incitement, anti-Semitism and terrorism will be accepted by all of our neighbors,” Netanyahu said. “If the incitement against the State of Israel ceases, along with the terrorism, there will be no need for the means that we have undertaken, such as the security fence, which has saved lives, thousands of lives.”
After meeting Netanyahu, the pope met again with Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and visited several Christian holy sites, including Mount Zion, the Garden of Gethsemane and the Cenacle, the traditional site of Jesus’ Last Supper. Jews consider the site to be King David’s tomb, and tensions have risen over reports that Israel plans to increase Christian access to the site.
Lebanese Maronite Catholic Cardinal Bechara Rai accompanied Francis on part of his Israel itinerary — the first time a senior Lebanese Christian religious figure visited Israel since Israel’s independence in 1948, according to the German news agency DPA.
Francis arrived in the region on Saturday, which he spent in Amman. After spending the next morning in Bethlehem, he came to Israel in the afternoon. In Israel, the pope has met with a range of political leaders and religious figures, and visited sites such as the Western Wall and Yad Vashem, in addition to Christian holy sites.