JERUSALEM (AP) – Pope Benedict XVI assured his followers in the Holy Land that peace is possible, as he ended his Mideast visit Friday by putting aside the contentious issues he has confronted and coming as a pilgrim to the site of Jesus’ crucifixion.
A traditional escort of men in black robes and red fezzes accompanied the pontiff as he solemnly walked into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, rhythmically banging staffs on the ground to announce his approach.
Benedict knelt down and kissed the rectangular stone on which Jesus’ body is believed to have been placed after the crucifixion. Then he entered the structure inside the church marking the site of Jesus’ tomb and knelt inside alone for several minutes, hands clasped, as priests chanted nearby.
In a speech afterward, he told those gathered in the church not to lose hope, a central theme during a visit in which he addressed the Holocaust, Israeli-Palestinian politics and the shrinking number of Christians in the region.
“The Gospel reassures us that God can make all things new, that history need not be repeated, that memories can be healed, that the bitter fruits of recrimination and hostility can be overcome, and that a future of justice, peace, prosperity and cooperation can arise for every man and woman, for the whole human family, and in a special way for the people who dwell in this land so dear to the heart of the Savior,” he said.
With those “words of encouragement,” he said, “I conclude my pilgrimage to the holy places of our redemption and rebirth in Christ.”
Thousands of soldiers and policemen were deployed Friday around Jerusalem’s Old City for the pope’s visit to the ancient church, which tradition holds marks the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection. “This is where it all began, where good defeated evil, which is what the pope and all of us hope will happen in the Holy Land and across the world,” said Hans Brouwers, a white-cloaked Catholic priest standing outside the church. Benedict also met with the city’s Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox patriarchs, part of the outreach effort toward Orthodox Christians that he has made a keystone of his papacy.
The pope is leaving the Holy Land having fulfilled his mission of reaching out to Jews and Muslims, but some are giving his five-day trip only mixed reviews. It was his first visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories as pontiff.
During his visit, he led 50,000 worshippers in a jubilant Mass outside of Nazareth in an effort to rally his flock, whose numbers have been holding steady inside Israel’s borders but dropping steeply in the West Bank and elsewhere in the Middle East. The number of Arab Christians in the Holy Land, an estimated 160,000, has barely risen in six decades, even as the Muslim and Jewish populations have skyrocketed. He removed his shoes to enter Islam’s third-holiest shrine, and he followed Jewish custom by placing a note bearing a prayer for peace in the cracks of the Western Wall. He also met Israeli and Palestinian leaders. “It was a trip in which the pope listened very much. He was also listened to, I think,” Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said.
Benedict won appreciation from Palestinians for endorsing their call for an independent state. But some Israelis were disappointed with his treatment of the Holocaust, saying he could have gone further in a speech at the country’s national Holocaust memorial.
The pope eloquently spoke of the suffering of Holocaust victims but did not follow the lead of his predecessor, John Paul II, in expressing remorse for the Church’s historic persecution of Jews. Neither did he discuss what some see as the Church’s passivity during the Nazi genocide or his own time as a member of the Hitler Youth.
Those perceived omissions led officials at the Yad Vashem memorial to take the exceptional step of openly criticizing the speech.
Many remember the excitement sparked by the charismatic John Paul when he arrived in 2000 for the first official visit here by a pope. Benedict’s visit seemed to suffer in comparison.
“If history will ever bother paying attention to his inconsequential visit, it will merely be as a footnote to the end of Christian influence in the Middle East,” columnist Anshel Pfeffer wrote Friday in the daily Haaretz. But Ron Kronish, an Israeli rabbi involved in interfaith dialogue, said much of the criticism was unfair.
“I think overall, from the point of view of the state of Israel and the Holy See, the Vatican, this was a successful trip,” he said.