Pope Francis honoured the Jews killed in the Holocaust as he capped his three-day Middle East trip with poignant stops at some of the holiest and most haunting sites for Jews.
At Israel’s request, Francis deviated from his whirlwind itinerary to pray at a memorial to victims of terrorism, giving the Jewish state his full attention a day after voicing strong support for the Palestinian cause.
Visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, Francis prayed before a crypt with ashes of victims and laid a wreath of yellow and white flowers in the Hall of Remembrance. And then one by one, he kissed the hands of a half-dozen Holocaust survivors in a sign of humility and honour as he heard their stories and of loved ones killed by the Nazis.
“Never again, Lord, never again!” Francis said. “Here we are, Lord, shamed by what man – created in your own image and likeness – was capable of doing.”
Joseph Gottdenker, born in Poland in 1942, said he briefly told the Pope how he was saved as a boy by Catholics who hid him during the Holocaust. Gottdenker, who now lives in Canada, said he was more emotional than he expected to be when he met the pope.
“The Catholic people who saved me and risked the lives of their whole families to save me, they are looking down today and proud to see me meet the leader of their faith,” Gottdenker said after the ceremony.
A day earlier, upon his arrival in Israel after visiting the West Bank, Francis clearly condemned the slaughter of six million Jews during the Holocaust, making up for what many Jews felt was a tepid speech from Pope Benedict XVI during his 2009 visit to Yad Vashem.
Earlier, Francis prayed at the Western Wall and left a note with the text of the “Our Father” prayer written in his native Spanish in one of the cracks between the stones. Pope Francis also used his trip to call the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “increasingly unacceptable” and urge sides to takecreative decisions to forge peace.
Francis spoke alongside Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas after landing in the West Bank town of Bethlehem in a symbolic nod to Palestinian aspirations for their own state. Previous popes making Middle East pilgrimages have landed in Israel first and then travelled to the West Bank.
Flag-waving Palestinians greeted Francis in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, where he was to celebrate Mass on a stage next to the Church of the Nativity, built over Jesus’s traditional birth grotto. Giant flags in red, white, green and black hanging alongside the Vatican’s yellow-and-white flags decorated the square. Many in the crowd also wore black-and-white checked scarves around their heads or necks, a symbol of the Palestinian cause.
Francis said: “The time has come to put an end to this situation which has become increasingly unacceptable.” He said both sides needed to make sacrifices to create two states, with internationally recognised borders, for the good of their own people.
In its official programme, the Vatican referred to Mr Abbas as the president of the “state of Palestine”. In 2012, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly recognised a “state of Palestine” in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem – lands Israel captured in the 1967 war – as a non-member observer. It has enabled the Palestinians to start seeking membership of UN agencies and accede to international conventions in a further upgrade of their status.
On Sunday, police arrested 26 Israelis for throwing stones at police officers and causing disturbances at a Jerusalem holy site where the Pope celebrated Mass at the end of his trip. Around 150 Jews demonstrated at the holy site to protest at rumours that Israel will transfer control of the site to the Vatican.
According to Catholic tradition, the site marks the last supper of Jesus, but Jews believe the biblical King David is buried there.