JERUSALEM — Pope Francis honored Jews killed in the Holocaust and other attacks and kissed the hands of Holocaust survivors as he capped his three-day Mideast trip with poignant stops Monday at some of the holiest and most haunting sites for Jews.
At Israel’s request, Francis deviated from his whirlwind itinerary to pray at Jerusalem’s Victims of Acts of Terror Memorial, giving the Jewish state his full attention a day after voicing strong support for the Palestinian cause.
Visiting the memorial dedicated to victims of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem, 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 honor as he heard their stories and of loved ones killed by the Nazis during World War II.
“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.”
He repeated that phrase writing in the memorial’s guest book, adding: “With shame for the fact that man made himself the owner of evil; with shame that man made himself into God and sacrificed his brothers. Never again!! Never again!! Francis. 5.26.2014.”
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 Monday, Francis prayed at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray, 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.
In the shadow of the wall, Francis embraced his good friend, Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka, and a leader of Argentina’s Muslim community, Omar Abboud, both of whom joined his official delegation for the trip in a sign of interfaith friendship.
Francis’ gesture at the wall and at the terrorism memorial – head bowed in prayer, right hand touching the stone – was the same he used a day earlier when he made an impromptu stop at the Israeli separation barrier surrounding the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Israel says the massive concrete barrier is necessary for its security, while the Palestinians say it has engulfed the West Bank land and suffocated the biblical town.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained to Francis Israel’s rationale for building the wall while they were at the terrorism memorial, his office said. Netanyahu asked Francis to add the memorial in at the last minute, and showed him the section dedicated to the victims of the 1994 bombing of a Jewish association in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people.
The Argentinian-born Francis was an auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires at the time of the attack and later became archbishop.
“When incitement and terror against Israel stops, there won’t be the need for the security fence, which has saved thousands of lives,” Netanyahu told the pope during a meeting at the Vatican’s Notre Dame visitor center.
Netanyahu also said that Israel’s Christian population has quadrupled since the country’s founding in 1948 and lauded Israel’s treatment of its Christian population.
“We guard the rights of Christians in Israel. That unfortunately does not exist in many places in the Middle East. Even Bethlehem, where your holiness visited, Jesus’ birthplace, has become...a Muslim city,” Netanyahu said.
Hana Bendcowsky, an expert in Jewish-Christian relations, said Netanyahu’s figures were somewhat misleading. She said the Christian population’s growth is mostly due to Israel’s granting residency to about 10,000 Palestinian Christians when it captured east Jerusalem in 1967, and some 30,000 Christians who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union because of Jewish family ties. These Soviet immigrants have generally been absorbed into the Jewish majority.
Francis’ intensely busy trip has been marked by his surprise invitation to the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to come to the Vatican next month to pray for peace. Both men accepted, and Francis and the outgoing Israeli President Shimon Peres spoke about the initiative Monday before planting an olive tree – a sign of peace – in the garden of Peres’ residence.
Francis started the day by taking off his shoes to enter the Dome of the Rock, the iconic shrine located at the third-holiest spot in Islam. The gold-topped dome enshrines the rock where Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammad ascended to heaven.
The mosque complex, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount, is at the heart of the territorial and religious disputes between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
Speaking to the grand mufti of Jerusalem and other Muslim authorities, Francis deviated from his prepared remarks to refer not just to his “dear friends” but “dear brothers.”
“May we respect and love one another as brothers and sisters!” he said. “May we learn to understand the suffering of others! May no one abuse the name of God through violence!”
Meeting with Israel’s chief rabbis, Francis called Jews the “older brothers” of Christians.
The pope appeared tired, but holding up well despite the breakneck, back-to-back schedule that took him from the Dome of the Rock to the Western Wall, to Mount Herzl, the Israeli national cemetery named for the father of modern Zionism, and Yad Vashem. Meetings with the Israeli prime minister and local priests were also on the agenda, and finally, Mass in the Room of the Last Supper, where Catholics believe Jesus shared his final meal with his disciples before being crucified.
Francis is due to return to Rome just before midnight.