- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2000

JERUSALEM Pope John Paul II crowned his Holy Land sojourn yesterday with a stunning gesture to the Jews at their holiest site, shuffling slowly up to the Western Wall and placing a plea for forgiveness in a nook between its yellowed stones.
The gesture by the 79-year-old pontiff was sure to become the most indelible image in a week of unforgettable moments.
It came on a whirlwind final day that saw the pope visit the sacred sites of all three faiths, all within the confines of Jerusalem's walled Old City, one of the most disputed patches of land in the world.
At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the pontiff knelt at the spot where tradition says Jesus was resurrected. At Haram as-Sharif, the hilltop where Muslims say the prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven, he met with Jerusalem's top Islamic cleric.
At each stop, he couldn't help but witness the passionate dispute over a city that both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital. But many who glimpsed him witnessed something equally potent: the charisma and healing power of this aging, ailing pontiff.
"Some wonderful things are going to happen in this century," said Bishop William Murphy of Boston, who followed the weeklong journey. "And I think that this week, we saw the beginning of it."
Hunched and leaning on a cane, the pontiff showed doubters he was more than up to the rigors of an ambitious and grueling itinerary.
Not only did he complete his packed schedule, he managed to squeeze in an impromptu second look at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre before flying back to Rome yesterday evening. He even hoisted himself up on the running board of his Chevy Suburban and waved, drawing cheers from delighted tourists.
But for Israelis, the highlight of the day, and indeed the week, was when the pope navigated the 86 steps it took him to reach the Western Wall and place a note in its stones, echoing a tradition of generations of Jewish worshippers. He had earlier in the week reached out to Jews at their Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem. But this was a gesture at the holiest site of all Judaism.
The pope's words were from an address he made this month in Rome, expressing sorrow over the past errors of his church.
"God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your Name to the Nations," read the typewritten message. "We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer and, asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant."
After a private prayer, the pope made a sign of the cross, then momentarily placed a trembling hand on the rocks.
The Israeli official in charge of the visit, Moshe Fogel, said he was only informed 10 minutes ahead of time that the pope was planning to place a note in the wall.
"I only imagined a tiny note," he said. "I looked, and this was a real document, unmistakably spread out for all the world to see."
Fearing it would blow away, Mr. Fogel recovered the note after the pope's departure and transferred it to Yad Vashem, "where it will remain on display for the world to see, forever."
Despite the religious significance of the day, politics wasn't far from the minds of either Israelis or Palestinians.
East Jerusalem, captured and annexed by Israel after the 1967 war, is claimed by Palestinians as the capital of a future independent state. Israel insists that the entire city remain its eternal capital.
The sun-splashed plaza that stretches before the wall was festooned with dozens of Israeli flags, and when the pope sat in his blue armchair on the podium, seven huge Israeli flags were clustered strategically behind him.
Not to be outdone, the Palestinians released a phalanx of balloons in the red, white, black and green colors of their flag, plus an actual flag tethered to a balloon, sending them floating over the plaza a half hour before the pope's arrival.
Political tensions were also in full display at the pope's earlier visit to Haram as-Sharif and its Al Aqsa Mosque complex, the third holiest Islamic shrine. The site is holy as well to Jews, who call it the Temple Mount.
There, the pontiff was greeted by Jerusalem's top Islamic cleric, or mufti, who wasted no time in bringing up the status of Jerusalem. "The holy city of Jerusalem has been eternally bonded to Islam," said Ikrema Sabri.
But the pope steered a cautious path, saying the city "has always been revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims."
Finally, the pope made his way through the treacherously narrow streets of the Old City to celebrate Mass at the cavernous, tallow-scented Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and rose from the dead. He was surrounded by clerics from the Christian sects that share a sometimes acrimonious custody of the church.

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