JERUSALEM (JTA) — Pope Benedict XVI vowed to fight anti-Semitism and called for an independent Palestinian state upon his arrival in Israel.
The pope also invoked the memory of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust and said he would pray for peace during his five-day visit to Israel, which began Monday morning when he landed in a plane belonging to the Jordanian royal family at Ben Gurion International Airport.
“I come, like so many others before me, to pray at the holy places, to pray especially for peace — peace here in the Holy Land, and peace throughout the world,” Benedict said during a welcoming ceremony at the airport.
The pope said that at his scheduled visit later in the day to the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem, he would “have the opportunity to honor the memory of the 6 million Jewish victims of the Shoah, and to pray that humanity will never again witness a crime of such magnitude.”
Benedict lamented the worldwide rise in anti-Semitism.
“Sadly, anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head in many parts of the world. This is totally unacceptable,” he said. “Every effort must be made to combat anti-Semitism wherever it is found, and to promote respect and esteem for the members of every people, tribe, language and nation across the globe.”
The pope then switched his attention to achieving peace between Palestinians and Israel.
“In union with people of good will everywhere, I plead with all those responsible to explore every possible avenue in the search for a just resolution of the outstanding difficulties, so that both peoples may live in peace in a homeland of their own, within secure and internationally recognized borders,” he said.
Israeli President Shimon Peres greeted the pope in Latin and Hebrew before addressing him in English.
“Your visit here brings a blessed understanding between religions and spreads peace near and far,” Peres said. “Historic Israel and the renewed Israel together welcome your arrival as paving the great road to peace from city to city.”
Following the airport ceremony, the pope flew by helicopter to Jerusalem, where he was greeted by Mayor Nir Barkat and a group of children waving Israeli flags and singing “Haveinu Shalom Aleichem.”
During a visit to the Yad Vashem Hall of Remembrance, where the Pope was greeted by former Israeli chief rabbi Israel Meir Lau and Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, Benedict said that the cry of the six million “echoes in our hearts. It is a cry raised against every act of injustice and violence. It is a perpetual reproach against the spilling of innocent blood.”
“I am deeply grateful to God and to you for the opportunity to stand here in silence: a silence to remember, a silence to pray, a silence to hope,” the pontiff said.
Before his visit to Yad Vashem, the Pope planted an olive tree during a visit to the president’s official residence in Jerusalem.
“Old divisions have aged and diminished,” Peres told Benedict. “So more than the need for another armored vehicle, we need a strong, inspiring spirit to instill both the conviction that peace is attainable, and the burning desire to pursue it. Ties of reconciliation and understanding are now being woven between the Holy See and the Jewish people. We cherish this process and your leadership. Our door is open to similar efforts with the Muslim world.”
The pope congratulated Peres on his recent inauguration and that of the Netanyahu government. “I wish to assure you and your new government that my pilgrimage to the holy places is one of prayer for the precious gift of unity, of peace,” he said, calling peace “above all a divine gift.”
The pope, who is traveling with a 40-person staff and 70 reporters, will stay at the Papal Nuncio’s residence in Jerusalem during his visit. He is scheduled to visit the Temple Mount and the Western Wall on Tuesday, Bethlehem on Wednesday and Nazareth on Thursday. He will fly back to Rome Friday afternoon on a special El Al flight.
Upon the pope’s arrival, “Operation White Robe,” which will include 80,000 police officers and security guards, went into effect to protect his safety.