JERUSALEM, March 26 (JTA) Pope John Paul II prayed at Judaism’s holiest site as he wrapped up a weeklong pilgrimage to the Holy Land devoted to religious reconciliation.
Visiting the Western Wall on Sunday, the pope rested his hands against the stones and prayed.
Reflecting a Jewish tradition, he placed at the wall a note expressing sorrow over Jewish suffering at Christian hands over the centuries. After placing it there, he made the sign of the cross.
“We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer and, asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the People of the Covenant,” said the pope’s typed, signed note.
Israeli Cabinet minister Michael Melchior, who welcomed the pope at the Western Wall, said his visit there reflected the Roman Catholic Church’s desire to end the era of “hatred, humiliation and persecution of the Jewish people.”
Melchior pledged Israel would seek to keep Jerusalem out of the political fray.
“We commit ourselves to end the manipulation of the sanctity of Jerusalem for political gain. Jerusalem must reject hatred, struggle and bloodshed, and be again the City of Peace and a source of holiness,” Melchior said.
After the pope left the site, Israeli officials transferred his signed note to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial for permanent display.
Asked about the pope’s making the sign of the cross at the Wall, Melchior said Jews have a “psychological problem” with the cross.
But, he added, “I think that what’s important here is not the cross. It’s that he touched the wall and the wall touched him.”
Bearing the message of the shared holiness of Jerusalem, the pope spent the last day of his pilgrimage visiting sites holy to Judaism, Islam and Christianity in the ancient walled city.
Before visiting the Western Wall, the 79-year-old pope arrived at the Al-Aksa Mosque complex, where he was greeted by the mufti of Jerusalem and other Palestinian officials.
Schoolchildren welcomed him with cheers of “Long Live Palestine” while hundreds of balloons in the green, red and black colors of the Palestinian flag were released.
During his meeting with the pope, Grand Mufti Ikrima Sabri urged him to “stand by justice in order to end the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem.”
A day earlier, the mufti, who is the leading Islamic cleric in Jerusalem, accused Israel of exaggerating the scale of the Holocaust to win international support.
“Six million? It was a lot less,” Sabri told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica on Saturday. “It’s not my fault if Hitler hated the Jews. Anyway they hate them just about everywhere.”
From the Western Wall Plaza, the pope continued to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.
Calling the site the “most hallowed place on earth,” the pope recited the final Mass of his visit. Alongside him were clerics from the different, sometimes squabbling, sects that are represented at the shrine.
Security was tight during the pope’s tour of the Old City out of concern for disruptions by Arabs or Jews opposed to his presence. No major incidents were reported.
As the day waned, the pope traveled to Ben-Gurion Airport, where Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, joined by Israeli and church officials, saw him off for his return flight to the Vatican.
After climbing the stairs to his plane, the pope stopped to salute the crowd, clasped his hands in blessing and looked skyward.
Before entering the plane, he turned and offered one final wave of farewell.