Jack Khoury & Zohar Blumenkrantz
Haaretz Correspondents, and News Agencies
Pope Benedict XVI was welcomed with a large ceremony at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on Monday afternoon, where President Shimon Peres told the visiting pontiff that this year, the year of the papal visit, could be the year Israel attains peace with its neighbors.
“This year, the year of your visit here, may reveal an opportunity for us and our neighbors, to attain peace. While many political clouds still darken the horizon, and the voices of incitement obscure the sound of peace, and much violence converged on the crossroads of our lives, most peoples in this region yearn for peace,” Peres said.
The president underlined the import role of spiritual leaders in political and diplomatic processes, saying that “spiritual leaders can pave the way for political leaders. They can clear the mine-fields that obstruct the road to peace. The spiritual leaders should reduce animosity, so that political leaders do not resort to destructive means.”
Peres also voiced concern over global violence fueled by religious beliefs, saying that “all of us: Jews, Christians, Muslims, all people of faith, recognize that today’s challenge is not the separation of religion and state, but the uncompromising separation of religion from violence. Our universal God commanded us not to kill and called upon us to sanctify human lives.”
The pope, who followed the president at the podium, urged religious leaders to avoid divisions, while calling for local political leaders to eschew “piecemeal politics” and ordinary people to shun conflict and violence.
The pontiff praised his Israeli host for his “distinguished record of public service, marked by a strong commitment to the pursuit of justice and peace.”
The pope arrived in Israel from Jordan on Monday morning, on the second leg of a pilgrimage to Middle East holy sites that takes him to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.
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The pope, whose readmittance of a Holocaust denier into the Catholic Church has badly damaged ties with the Jewish world, vowed in his welcome speech at Tel Aviv airport earlier Monday to fight anti-Semitism, which he deemed “totally unacceptable.”
“I take my place in a long line of Christian pilgrims to these shores, a line that stretches back to the earliest centuries of the Church’s history and which, I am sure, will keep and continue long into the future,” the pope said during his address on the tarmac.
“I come, like so many others before me, to pray at the holy places, to pray especially for peace – peace in the Holy Land and peace throughout the world.”
In his address, the pope also denounced anti-Semitism and said that humanity must make every effort to avoid a crime on the scale of which was committed during the Holocaust.
“I will have the opportunity to honor the memory of the six million Jewish victims of the Shoah,” said the German pope, who faces criticism for policies toward Jews, including his recent reinstatement of a bishop who denied Nazis killed six million.
“Sadly, anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head in many parts of the world. This is totally unacceptable,” said the pontiff. “Every effort must be made to combat anti-Semitism wherever it is found, and to promote respect and esteem for the members of every people, tribe, language and nation across the globe.”
Pope Benedict also urged the warring parties in the Middle East to strive for peaceful relations.
“I plead with all those responsible to explore every possible avenue in the search for a just resolution of the outstanding difficulties, so that both peoples may live in peace in a homeland of their own, within secure and internationally recognized borders,” the pope said.
The pope, who is on a pilgrimage of holy sites in the Middle East, landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport at approximately 11 A.M. on a special Royal Jordanian flight. He was met by Israeli dignitaries, including President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
An Israel Defense Forces honor guard greeted the pope upon his descent onto the tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport. The pontiff stood between Netanyahu and Peres as the band played a rendition of the Israel’s national anthem “Hatikva,” the Vatican’s anthem and “Jerusalem of Gold.” After the welcoming ceremony, he was flown by helicopter to Jerusalem.
The pope was accompanied on his flight from Jordan by 40 members of the Vatican staff, and 70 reporters.
Upon his arrival in Jerusalem, the pope was greeted by Mayor Nir Barkat and other dignitaries, at the Mount Scopus landing pad.
Jerusalem Mayor Barkat told the pontiff he will feel at home in the Holy City. “In Jerusalem, the capital of Israel and the Jewish people, we promote pluralism, dialogue and freedom of religion,” said Barkat.
In the afternoon, the pontiff met with the parents of the captive IDF soldier Gilad Shalit; a tree-planting ceremony was also scheduled to be held at the President’s Residence.
In the late afternoon the pope visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museuem and made a statement after laying a wreath at the memorial for those who perished in the Shoah.
The head of the Catholic Church was to hold an interfaith meeting in the early evening at the Notre Dame hotel in the city.
During his stay in Israel, through Friday, the pontiff will reside at the home of the Vatican ambassador in Jerusalem and not at one of the city’s hotels.