"This year, the year of your visit here, may reveal an opportunity for us and our neighbors to attain peace," President Shimon Peres said as he welcomed Pope Benedict XVI at his official residence in Jerusalem Monday afternoon.
"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," the president said.
Stressing the importance of spiritual leaders in the advancement of diplomatic processes, Peres said, "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.
Pope Benedict XVI and Peres (Photo: Gil Yohanan)
"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," Peres added.
During his speech the pope called on political leaders to avoid "piecemeal politics" and praised Peres for his "distinguished record of public service, marked by a strong commitment to the pursuit of justice and peace."
Benedict XVI said his pilgrimage was one of "prayer for the precious gift of unity and peace for the Middle East and all of humanity".
During the ceremony, Israeli girls in white dresses sang for the pontiff. Peres and Benedict planted an olive tree together, and the Israeli president presented the pope two gifts: wheat stalks developed by Israeli scientists and called Benedict XVI in his honor, and a 300,000-word Hebrew text of the Jewish Bible inscribed on a tiny silicon particle, using nanotechnology.
"I don't think you have one of these at the Vatican," Peres quipped.
Before speaking, the pope met privately with Peres and the parents of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was captured by Hamas militants three years ago and remains in captivity in the Gaza Strip.
Upon his arrival at Ben Gurion Airport earlier Monday to begin the Israeli leg of his Mideast tour, the pope said "It is right and fitting that during my stay in Israel, I will have the opportunity to honor the memory of the 6 million Jewish victims of the Shoah (Holocaust) and to pray that humanity will never again witness a crime of such magnitude."
Later Monday, he was to lay a wreath at Israel's national Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem.
News agencies contributed to the report