Pope Francis faces a diplomatic high-wire act on Monday as he visits sacred Muslim and Jewish sites in Jerusalem on the final day of his Middle East tour.
The pontiff is rounding off a whirlwind trip which saw him issue a unique invitation to Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to pray with him at the Vatican to end the “increasingly unacceptable” Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as snatching a personal moment at Israel’s controversial security barrier.
Francis had promised the three-day pilgrimage, which began on Saturday in Jordan, would steer clear of political issues. But he ad-libbed from his scripted speeches to condemn anti-Semitism, religious intolerance and those behind conflicts in the Middle East.
On Monday, Jews and Muslims are expected to scrutinize the pope’s every word and gesture as he seeks to bridge the religious divides in meetings with leaders from both sides.
The 77-year-old pontiff will meet the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem on the Temple Mount, Islam’s third holiest site, and the holiest in Judaism as the site of the Biblical temples.
He will then pray at the Western Wall before visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum, where he will speak with Holocaust survivors, and will also become the first pope ever to lay flowers at Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl’s grave on Mount Herzl.
The pope will also celebrate mass at the site known as the Cenacle, or Upper Room, bringing into sharp focus a decades-long debate over the site where Christians believe Jesus had his Last Supper.
The site, on Mount Zion, is located in a two-story building also considered holy to Jews and Muslims, who regard it as the place where the biblical figure David was buried.
On Sunday, Francis celebrated mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square amid thousands of cheering, flag-waving Christians.
He also made an unscheduled stop by the West Bank security barrier, climbing out of his open jeep to pray, his forehead and hand resting against the wall, in a powerful show of support for the Palestinians.
At the end of the open-air mass, the pope weighed in on the Middle East conflict, inviting Abbas and Peres to join him at the Vatican for a “heartfelt prayer” for peace.
In the wake of the latest breakdown in US-led peace talks, Francis called on leaders to show “courage” to achieve a peace based on a two-state solution, saying “building peace is difficult, but living without peace is a constant torment.”
A senior Palestinian official confirmed Abbas had accepted and would visit the Vatican on June 6, while Peres’s spokesman said only that the invitation was welcomed.
In a boost for relations between bickering Christians, Francis joined Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I in an historic joint prayer for unity between Rome and Constantinople.
The pair met, embraced and kissed at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre inside the walled Old City to mark the historic meeting 50 years ago between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras — the first easing of tensions between the Churches since the Great Schism in the 11th century.
Francis has said the main reason for Middle East visit was the meeting with Bartholomew I, and “to pray for peace in that land, which has suffered so much.” (AFP/Times of Israel staff)