- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 16, 2009

JERUSALEM | Pope Benedict XVI ended his controversial pilgrimage to the Holy Land on Friday by appealing to Israelis, Palestinians and all the people of the Middle East to “break the vicious circle of violence” and let a two-state solution become a reality.

Speaking to Israeli President Shimon Peres at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport before he left for Rome, the 82-year-old German pontiff said he wanted to put on record that “I came to visit this country as a friend of the Israelis, just as I am a friend of the Palestinian people. Friends enjoy spending time in one another’s company, and they find it deeply distressing to see one another suffer.

“No friend can fail to weep at the suffering and loss of life that both peoples have endured over the last six decades,” the pope said.

“Allow me to make this appeal to all the people of these lands: No more bloodshed! No more terrorism! No more war! Instead, let us break the vicious circle of violence. Let there be lasting peace based on justice; let there be genuine reconciliation and healing.”

Benedict went on to reiterate the call he has made throughout his 10-day trip to the region for a lasting peace settlement.

“Let it be universally recognized that the state of Israel has the right to exist, and to enjoy peace and security within internationally agreed borders,” Benedict said. “Let it be likewise acknowledged that the Palestinian people have a right to a sovereign independent homeland, to live with dignity and to travel freely. Let the two-state solution become a reality, not remain a dream.”

The pope again lamented the existence of the Israeli security wall cutting through the West Bank, which he called “one of the saddest sights for me during my visit to these lands.”

“As I passed along it, I prayed for a future in which the peoples of the Holy Land can live together in peace and harmony without the need for such instruments of security and separation.”

In his farewell speech, the pope also went out of his way to again condemn the Nazi Holocaust, recalling his visit Monday to the Yad Vashem museum, where his remarks were condemned by some Israelis as insufficiently contrite. “That appalling chapter of history must never be forgotten or denied,” the pope said.

Benedict began the last day of his visit by telling Christians at their holiest site that they have a “sacred task” to foster reconciliation between faiths.

Speaking at the 11th-century Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City, where most Christians believe Jesus was crucified and buried, the pontiff recalled the account in St. John’s Gospel of the disciple Peter’s visit to Jesus’ empty tomb on Easter morning and the mystery of the Resurrection. “May our contemplation of this mystery spur our efforts, both as individuals and as members of the ecclesiastic community, to grow in the life of the spirit through conversion, penance and prayer,” Benedict said.

During his visit to the site where a church first was built in the 4th century, the pope said that “as Christians we know that the peace for which this strife-torn land yearns has a name: Jesus Christ … he is the source of that reconciliation which is both God’s gift and a sacred task enjoined upon us.”

The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Fouad Twal, said the pope’s visit had brought hope “in spite of the attacks that are being unleashed against you and against the church due to the simple fact that you are a co-worker for truth.”

During his delicate trip, the leader of many of the world’s 1.1 billion Christians took his message of peace and reconciliation to religious leaders of many denominations and to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Mr. Netanyahu may have shown little sign of responding to the pope’s support of “Palestinians’ legitimate aspirations” for an independent state when he met Benedict on Thursday in the northern Israeli city of Nazareth.

However, Israeli commentators conceded that Benedict’s stance, including a visit to Palestinian refugees living in the shadow of the 25-foot-high Israeli wall and the pope’s denunciation of the barrier as “tragic,” were valuable publicity coups for the Palestinian cause ahead of crucial talks between Mr. Netanyahu and President Obama on Monday.

“Benedict’s visit was very political, both because he is a very political pope and because the visit occurred so soon after the war in Gaza,” Israel’s dovish Ha’aretz newspaper said. “His speeches turned into a competition between Israelis and Palestinians over recognition of their misery and the justness of their causes.”

“The Palestinians won the competition, thanks to the pope’s open support for a two-state solution, his condemnation of the West Bank barrier and his repeated references to their plight,” the paper added. “They too expected more, but they received quite a bit.”

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