JERUSALEM | Pope Benedict XVI celebrated a Mass at the garden of Gethsemane for thousands of pilgrims Tuesday and received a tumultuous welcome that raised the tone of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but repeated criticism in Israel forced Vatican officials to defend the pontiff’s past.
The pontiff was greeted by a throng of cheering pilgrims as his white popemobile rolled through the olive groves in the Valley of Kidron between the Mount of Olives and the 400-year-old walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. The Mass was the first the German pope has celebrated since arriving in Israel on Monday for the start of a five-day visit that has taken him to sites sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians.
Some Israeli politicians and newspaper columnists, however, focused on the pontiff’s visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum the previous day, claiming he failed to express enough remorse for the World War II Nazi crimes against Jews.
“The pope spoke like a historian, as somebody observing from the sidelines, about things that shouldn’t happen. But what can you do? He was part of them - a German who joined the Hitler Youth and … Hitler’s army,” wire agencies quoted parliament Speaker Reuven Rivlin as saying.
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The pope’s chief spokesman, The Rev. Federico Lombardi, rejected such criticism.
“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.”
Father Lombardi at first denied that Benedict, 82, was ever in the Nazi youth movement. But when reporters noted the pope himself spoke of his membership in a 1996 book, he revised the statement to say: “He was enrolled involuntarily into the Hitler Youth, but he had no active participation.”
In his homily at the Mass, the pope expressed sympathy for those made homeless by the Middle East conflict. His remarks were seen as referring to Palestinian refugees.
“I wish to acknowledge the difficulties, the frustration, and the pain and suffering which so many of you have endured as a result of the conflicts which have afflicted these lands, and the bitter experiences of displacement which so many of your families have known and God forbid may yet know,” Benedict said.
Earlier, Benedict called 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 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.
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.
The pontiff stood in prayer for several minutes at the Western 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.
On May 5, the pope met with Israel’s two chief rabbis and prayed at the site of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples before the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
On Wednesday, the pope travels to Bethlehem in the Palestinian territories where he will celebrate an open-air Mass and visit a Palestinian refugee camp.