- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 12, 2009

JERUSALEM | Pope Benedict XVI prayed at Muslim and Jewish holy sites at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Tuesday, calling on men and women of good will to undertake sincere dialogue to build “a world of justice and peace for coming generations.”

“Here the path of the world’s three great monotheistic religions meet, reminding us what they share in common,” Benedict said on the second day of his visit to Israel as he became the first pope to visit the Dome of the Rock shrine inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound dominating Jerusalem`s Old City.

“In a world sadly torn by divisions, this sacred place serves as a stimulus, and also challenges men and women of goodwill to work to overcome misunderstandings and conflicts of the past, and to set out on the path of a sincere dialogue aimed at building a world of justice and peace for coming generations.”

The grand mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Hussein, urged the pope to work to end Israeli “aggression” against Palestinians. “We look forward to your holiness’s effective role in putting an end to the ongoing aggression against our people, our land, and our Holy Sites in Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank,” he said. Israelis and Palestinians both claim Jerusalem as their capital.

In the 7th century, Islamic conquerors built the first Dome on the spot, where Muslims believe Mohammed ascended to heaven in a spiritual journey. It is also the historical site of the Jewish temple built by Solomon and rebuilt centuries later and destroyed by the Romans.

The area overlooking the Western Wall has been a flashpoint for tensions since Israeli forces captured Jerusalem’s Old City in 1967.

Palestinian anger in 2000 over Israeli leader Ariel Sharon visiting the sites triggered a bloody uprising known as the second intifada.

The German pontiff stood in prayer for several minutes at the wall, a remnant of the Roman-era temple complex that is Judaism`s holiest place. He placed a note in the wall, a traditional gesture, again calling for peace in the troubled region.

“Send your peace upon this Holy Land, upon the Middle East, upon the entire human family,” the note said.

The pope’s chief spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, rejected criticism by some Israelis who felt the pope should have apologized for being German during a visit he made to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum Monday.

“The pope already spoke many times about these problems and also about being German, during his visits to the Synagogue in Cologne and to Auschwitz, saying that this could be providential for reconciliation with the Jewish people” Father Lombardi told reporters. “He did not think that every time he has to repeat this in every speech he makes.”

“To have a mutual understanding you must have someone who speaks and someone who is ready to listen,” he added.

Father Lombardi also strongly denied reports in the Israeli media claiming that as a teenager in World War 2 Benedict had participated in the HitlerJugen, the Hitler Youth movement.

“He was enrolled involuntarily into the Hitler Youth, but he had no active participation,” Father Lombardi said.

Later Tuesday the pope met with Israel`s two chief rabbis and prayed at the site of Jesus`s Last Supper with his disciples before his crucifixion and resurrection. He then celebrated mass for a throng of thousands of Roman Catholics near the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was betrayed.

On Wednesday the pope travels to Bethlehem in the Palestinian territories where he will celebrate an open air mass as part of his pastoral mission to encourage the dwindling Christian population to stay in the Holy Land.

Local organizers had hoped Benedict would speak from a stage built next to the towering wall that is part of the barrier built by Israel around much of the West Bank to halt a spate of suicide bomb attacks.

Under Israeli pressure the stage was moved so that the world would not see images of the pontiff by the grim concrete barrier that cuts through Bethlehem.

Israeli military authorities announced yesterday they will close the border at 4 a.m. today.

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