Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Israel
on Monday morning, as part of his first papal visit to the Middle East and a self-proclaimed "pilgrimage of peace". In the coming days he is also expected to visit the Palestinian Authority.
The pope made his journey on a plane belonging to the Jordanian royal family. The flags of Israel and the Vatican were waved from the cockpit window.
In his first speech at the airport, Benedict said he would honor the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust and fight anti-Semitism today around the world.
"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.
"Anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head in many parts of the world. This is totally unacceptable. Every effort must be made to combat anti-Semitism wherever it is found."
Benedict escorted by Peres and Netanyahu (Photo: Yaron Brener)
He also called for free access to Jerusalem for people from all the religions with holy sites in the city.
"One thing that the three great monotheistic religions have in common is a special veneration for that holy city," he said, referring to Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
"It is my earnest hope that all pilgrims to the holy places will be able to access them freely and without restraint.
"I take my place in a long line of Christian pilgrims to these shores," he added. "I come, like so many others before me, to pray at the holy places, to pray especially for peace - peace here in the Holy Land, and peace throughout the world."
The pope went on to call for a two-state solution to Israel's conflict with the Palestinians, a reassertion of Vatican policy that is at odds with the new Israeli government.
"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," he said.
The reception ceremony at the airport was attended by President Shimon Peres,
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
and government ministers. The Israeli and Vatican anthems were played near the plane.
Before the pope spoke, Peres said, "We have made peace with Egypt
and we are negotiating to make peace with the Palestinians. We may also arrive at a comprehensive regional peace in the near future."
He went on to say that "Israel safeguards the absolute freedom of religious practice and free access to holy sites. We are glad to welcome pilgrims from throughout the world in the Holy Land."
Benedict walked on the red carpet accompanied by Peres and Netanyahu on each side, and shook hands with 60 senior Israeli officials. He later met the leaders of the Catholic Church in Israel.
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin did not attend the reception, sending his deputy, Knesset Member Ruhama Avraham (Kadima),
From the airport the pope traveled via helicopter to Jerusalem, where he met with Mayor Nir Barkat and visited the Vatican ambassador's residence in east Jerusalem.
The reception ceremony was boycotted by Shas
ministers, after the haredi party's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, instructed them "to be absent from the reception ceremonies in a quiet way, without 'campaigning' against it".
The rabbi gave the order after listening to claims for and against taking part in the event.
A source in Shas told Ynet, "The reason the party's ministers did not attend the reception events was because of the pope's past, as a person who took part in the Hitler youth movement, and out of consideration for the feelings of Holocaust survivors.
"In addition, this is a symbolic act in light of the Vatican's demand to be granted sovereignty over a number of holy sites in Jerusalem."
On Monday afternoon, the pope is scheduled to arrive at the President's Residence, where he will be received with a special welcoming ceremony and meet with the parents of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit.
Later Monday, the pope, accompanied by President Peres and Knesset Speaker Rivlin, will visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority museum in Jerusalem. There, he will meet with six Holocaust survivors and a righteous gentile, and take part in a remembrance ceremony.
Yad Vashem officials hope the visit will lead to positive statements by the father Holy See, that was scrutinized for its stance during the Holocaust under Pope Pius XII.
Meanwhile, police have launched "Operation White Robe" in preparation for the papal visit, which will include 80,000 officers and security guards.
Reuters and Ronen Medzini contributed to this report