By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM – Passing the midpoint of his Holy Land pilgrimage, Pope Benedict XVI celebrated an open-air Mass in Jerusalem, prayed at the Western Wall and visited one of Islam’s most sacred shrines.

The Pope’s events May 12 underscored his message that Jerusalem, a meeting ground for Christianity, Judaism and Islam, must again become a city of peace. It was his second day in the holy city after four days in Jordan.

The Pope made a morning visit to the Dome of the Rock, sacred to Muslims as the place from which Mohammed ascended to heaven. He told Islamic leaders there that Christians, Muslims and Jews have a “grave responsibility” to expand dialogue and mend spanisions.

The Pope then went to the Western Wall, a site sacred to Jews as the remains of the Second Temple, and placed a written prayer in a crevice between the massive stones. It asked God to “hear the cry of the afflicted, the fearful, the bereft; send your peace upon this Holy Land, upon the Middle East, upon the entire human family.”

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The 82-year-old pontiff stood in silent prayer before the wall for two minutes, much as his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, had done nine years earlier.

In the evening, the Pope celebrated Mass for several thousand people in the Josafat Valley beneath the Mount of Olives next to the walls of the Old City. In his homily, he called for the city to regain its vocation as “as a prophecy and promise of that universal reconciliation and peace which God desires for the whole human family.”

Sadly, in today’s Jerusalem, he said, “hope continues to battle despair, frustration and cynicism, while the peace which is God’s gift and call continues to be threatened by selfishness, conflict, spanision and the burden of past wrongs.”

Like many papal events, the Mass was tinged with politics. Welcoming the Pope, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem said Palestinians dream of a “free and independent” state of their own while the people of Israel dream of living in peace and security.

The patriarch said the Catholic community is shrinking, mainly because of emigration due to the “unjust occupation” of Palestinian land by Israel and “all its humiliation.”

The Pope’s first day in Jerusalem May 11 was a busy one, and it began with a remembrance of Jewish suffering under the Nazi extermination campaign and a strongly worded warning about new forms of anti-Semitism.

Speaking at a welcoming ceremony at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, the Pope said he had come to honor the memory of the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and “to pray that humanity will never again witness a crime of such magnitude.”

“Sadly, anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head in many parts of the world. This is totally unacceptable,” he said.

As Israeli President Shimon Peres and Israeli government leaders listened, the Pope then urged a negotiated peace settlement that will allow Israelis and Palestinians to “live in peace in a homeland of their own, within secure and internationally recognized borders.”

Meeting with Peres at the presidential palace in Jerusalem the same day, the Pope spoke about the sensitive topic of security, saying the term needs to be understood not simply as “the absence of threat” but as inseparable from justice and peace.

In a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, Pope Benedict prayed silently before the eternal flame in the Hall of Remembrance and said the suffering of Jews under the Nazi extermination campaign must “never be denied, belittled or forgotten.”

The Pope called the Holocaust an atrocity that disgraced mankind and said the Church is committed to working tirelessly “to ensure that hatred will never reign in the hearts of men again.”

He met with six Holocaust survivors, who later expressed their appreciation for the Pope’s gesture. But some Jewish leaders said they were disappointed that the German Pope made no mention in his talk of the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust.

That evening, the Pope told a group of interreligious dialogue experts that, in a world that has in some ways become “deaf to the spanine,” religions must give common witness to God’s rightful place in the world. The event was marred by a Muslim sheik’s denunciation of Israeli policies, which prompted some Jewish representatives to walk out.

The Pope began his eight-day trip in Jordan, where he walked a pilgrim’s path, energizing its minority Christian population and building bridges to the moderate Muslim world.

Arriving at Amman’s airport May 8 he said he had come as a Christian pilgrim and with “deep respect” for the Muslim community. It was Pope Benedict’s first trip to an Arab country.

The Pope’s first stop in Amman was the Regina Pacis center, a Church-run facility for the disabled, and it underscored the charitable role played by Jordan’s minority Christian population in cooperation with Muslims. Arriving to loud cheers, he waded into a huge crowd of well-wishers.

The following day, the Pope visited the King Hussein Mosque in Amman, pausing briefly in what the Vatican called “respectful meditation” in a Muslim place of prayer.

In a speech afterward to Muslim academics and religious leaders, the Pope warned of the “ideological manipulation of religion” that can act as a catalyst for tensions and violence in contemporary societies.

The Pope traveled May 9 to Mount Nebo, the place where Moses glimpsed the Promised Land before dying. He then rode his Popemobile to the ancient biblical city of Madaba, where he blessed the foundation of the first Catholic university in Jordan.

The Pope’s Mass May 10 in an Amman soccer stadium that holds 25,000 people was the liturgical high point of his visit. In his homily, the Pope preached as a simple pastor, recognizing the spiritual and material struggle of Christian families in the land where the Church was born.

Later in the day the Pope made his way to the Jordan River, where archaeologists believe they have identified the site of Jesus’ baptism by St. John the Baptist. He blessed the foundation stones of two Catholic churches – one Latin-rite and the other Melkite – to be built at the location and said the new construction was a hopeful sign for a Christian community that goes back to the Church’s beginnings.