Israel is the center of the world “in so many ways,” the archbishop of Canterbury said Thursday in Jerusalem. He stressed Israel’s legitimacy and right to security, and also spoke, in the context of persecution of Christians by Islamists in the Middle East, about the Christian imperative to “love our enemies.”

It was his maiden visit to the region since being appointed to one of the highest positions in the Protestant Church.

The Most Reverend Justin Welby, who has a Jewish father, is the leader of the Church of England and of 80 million Anglicans worldwide. He was enthroned in Canterbury on March 21.

Asked by reporters why he made a visit to Israel a priority so early in his term, he responded, “This is the cradle of the three great world faiths. It’s the cradle of our own faith, of Christian faith. It’s where Jesus lived and walked and died and rose again. It is in so many ways the center of the world, in so many extraordinary ways. What possible reason could there be to delay?”

During his visit — which also was to take him to the Palestinian territories, Egypt and Jordan — the archbishop was set to meet with President Shimon Peres, community leaders and religious figures, such as representatives of the Chief Rabbinate and patriarchs of the Jerusalem churches.

On Thursday morning, Welby, 57, visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. Asked about his experience, he hesitated, seemingly not knowing how to respond. But after a few seconds, he said, “I don’t particularly want to talk about it in detail. It was an extraordinarily personal and emotional moment, really.”

Welby, who only found out about his Jewish heritage recently, had relatives who perished in the Holocaust.

Archbishop of Canterbury and senior bishop in the Church of England Justin Welby looks at photographs of individual Holocaust victims in the Hall of Names at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum in Jerusalem, Thursday, June 27, 2013 (photo credit: Photo by Isaac Harari/Flash90)

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby looks at photographs of individual Holocaust victims in the Hall of Names at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum in Jerusalem, Thursday, June 27, 2013 (photo credit: Photo by Isaac Harari/Flash90)

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar was scheduled to meet with Welby but had to cancel for “personal reasons,” the rabbinate said, adding that Amar was delayed in Spain. Instead, Welby was greeted in the rabbinate’s Jerusalem headquarters by two English-speaking members of the Chief Rabbinate Interfaith Committee for Dialogue, rabbis David Rosen and Daniel Sperber. Sperber had also represented the rabbinate at Welby’s enthronement ceremony in March at Canterbury Cathedral.

“The clear policy of the church and my own very clear emotional feeling is that the State of Israel is a legitimate state like every other state in the world and has a right to exist in security and peace within internationally agreed boundaries,” the archbishop said. “Secondly, all the people in the region, without exception, from whatever background they come, whether it is Israeli, or Palestinian or any other, also have the right to exist in peace and security within properly agreed frontiers. Those are the two great principles by which disputes of the kind we’re seeing in this area are settled.”

Welby said that he was not qualified to comment on US Secretary of State John Kerry’s current effort to revive the stalled peace process, but blessed his initiative with success. “Obviously, anyone who is seeking to put together a settlement in this area — we must all wish them Godspeed and every blessing in what they’re doing,” the archbishop said. “He’s clearly personally deeply committed. I don’t think anyone in this area has any illusions about the complexity of the task he’s undertaken.”

Archbishop of Canterbury and senior bishop in the Church of England Justin Welby with President Shimon Peres at Peres's Jerusalem residence, Thursday, June 27, 2013 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Archbishop of Canterbury and senior bishop in the Church of England Justin Welby with President Shimon Peres at Peres’s Jerusalem residence, Thursday, June 27, 2013 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Kerry was scheduled to arrive in Israel Thursday for the fifth time since taking office a few month ago in a bid to get Israeli and Palestinian leaders to resume direct peace negotiations.

Addressing the persecution of Christians by Islamists in the Middle East, Welby said that he had seen with his own eyes “mass graves” of co-religionists in the area, but he offered a reconciliatory message. “I have no illusions about this. But historically, the right response of Christians to persecution and attack is — it’s the hardest thing we can ever say to people, but Jesus tells us to love our enemies,” he said. “It’s the hardest thing when you’re violently attacked. It’s an indescribable challenge. But God gives grace so often for that, to love our enemies.”

Welby has had limited experience working with Jewish groups, but activists speak positively of his relations with Jews in his former parishes and in the interfaith world. Interfaith experts are still wondering whether Welby will be able to improve Jewish-Anglican relations, which have gone through a rocky patch over the last few month, and how the revelations about his Jewish heritage might affect his attitudes and worldviews.

Miriam Shaviv contributed to this report.