Pope ditches script amid politics of Mideast tour

Pope Francis prays in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City yesterday as part of his Middle East pilgrimage. Photo / AP
Pope Francis prays in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City yesterday as part of his Middle East pilgrimage. Photo / AP

Pope Francis has called for Christians, Jews and Muslims to work together for peace as he toured holy sites in Jerusalem on the final day of his Middle East pilgrimage.

On a tour of key sacred places in the walled Old City, the 77-year-old Pontiff first visited Al-Aqsa mosque compound, then prayed at the Western Wall which lies just beneath it.

The Pontiff was rounding off a whirlwind trip, which saw him issue a unique invitation to the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to pray with him at the Vatican to end their "increasingly unacceptable" conflict, as well as snatching a personal prayer moment at Israel's controversial separation barrier.

Francis had promised the three-day pilgrimage, which began in Jordan, would steer clear of political issues. But he ad-libbed from his scripted speech to condemn anti-Semitism, religious intolerance and those behind conflicts in the Middle East. "May we work together for justice and peace," Francis said after being shown around the Al-Aqsa compound, which is also considered sacred by Jews.

Entering the blue-tiled Dome of the Rock, used as a place of worship for women only, the Pope first removed his shoes before walking down to visit the smaller, silver-domed Al-Aqsa mosque. For Jews, the plaza is the holiest site in Judaism, but they are forbidden by law to pray there, praying instead at the adjacent Western Wall, where the Pope made his next stop. Placing his right hand on the ancient stones, he bowed his head in prayer before placing a note in the wall, then sharing an emotional embrace with two close Jewish and Muslim friends travelling with him.

He was to also visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and was to become the first pope ever to lay flowers on the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism.

The Pope was also to celebrate Mass at the site known as the Cenacle, or Upper Room, bringing into sharp focus a decades-long debate over prayer rites at the site where Christians believe Jesus had his Last Supper. The site on Mount Zion is located in a two-storey building also considered holy to Muslims and Jews, who regard it as the place where the biblical figure David was buried.

Earlier yesterday Francis made an unscheduled stop at the Israeli-built barrier that separates the town of Bethlehem from Jerusalem, praying against the wall that has come to symbolise Arab-Israeli division. The unexpected gesture came as the Pope was en route to Manger Square. The section that the Pope chose to stop at bore graffiti saying "Free Palestine". Israeli officials tried to play down the significance. "There's nothing political here," said a Foreign Ministry spokesman, who accused the Palestinians of turning the papal visit into "a propaganda stunt ... But that's what they do and the Vatican plays along with it."

In another surprise initiative, the Pontiff invited President Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, and Shimon Peres, the President of Israel, to a meeting at the Vatican, expected to take place on June 6.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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