Pope Benedict XVI celebrated mass outside of Jerusalem's Old City on Tuesday after two days in Israel spent navigating the currents of the region's conflicts and appealing for reconciliation.
Benedict was greeted by thousands of cheering pilgrims as his white popemobile trundled through the olive groves in the valley of Kidron between the Mount of Olives and the 400-year-old walls of Jerusalem's Old City. The Kidron Valley is located beneath the spot where Jesus is believed to have prayed with his disciples before his arrest.
He began the Mass with the traditional Latin greeting, "Pax Vobis," or peace be with you.
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In his homily, Benedict acknowledged "the difficulties, the frustration, and the pain and suffering which so many of you have endured ... I hope my presence here is a sign that you are not forgotten."
He urged the Holy Land's Christians. who, caught between Jews and Muslims, have been emigrating in large numbers, to persevere. "In the Holy Land there is room for everyone," he said to applause.
"We need peace here. I hope he can help by praying for us," said Elizabeth Smeir, 56, a Christian resident of Jerusalem who attended the Mass.
Pope Benedict XVI during mass (Photo: Reuters)
The mass was the first the pope has celebrated since arriving in Israel on Monday at the start of a five-day visit that has already taken him to sites sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians.
"Here the path of the world's three great monotheistic religions meet, reminding us what they share in common," Benedict said earlier as he became the first pope to visit the Dome of the Rock shrine inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, a site holy to Jews and Muslims.
"This sacred place serves as a stimulus, and also challenges men and women of goodwill to work to overcome misunderstandings and conflicts of the past and set out on the path of a sincere dialogue," he said.
The pontiff arrived at the Dome of the Rock early on Tuesday, taking off his red shoes before entering the shrine whose huge golden cupola has become Jerusalem's main distinguishing landmark.
The compound in which it stands in the Old City is the holiest place in Judaism and third-holiest in Islam and has often been a flashpoint in the Middle East conflict, most recently when the second Palestinian uprising erupted there in 2000.
Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Mohammed Hussein, who escorted the pontiff on the visit, urged the pope to work to end Israeli "aggression" against Palestinians.
At the Wailing Wall nearby – believed by Jews to be one of the last remnant of their Second Temple – the pope inserted a piece of paper into the mottled ancient stone cracks and prayed for peace in the Middle East.
"God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob ... send your peace upon this Holy Land, upon the Middle East, upon the entire human family," the note said.
The Old City of Jerusalem was nearly a ghost town on Tuesday as Israel beefed up measures for the leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics on his first official trip to Israel and the West Bank.
Benedict's trip is aimed at part at boosting Israel-Vatican ties and in a meeting with Israel's two chief rabbis on Tuesday, the pontiff reiterated that the Catholic Church was committed to reconciliation with the Jews.
But many Israelis said they felt let down by the remarks made by the pope during a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial on Monday in which he condemned the Holocaust and prayed for its victims.
The visit was seen as part of an attempt to repair Israel-Vatican ties which have been strained over his backing for the beatification of controversial Nazi-era Pope Pius XII and reinstating a Holocaust-denying bishop.
But critics pointed out the German-born pope failed to ask forgiveness for the Holocaust and insisted he displayed no emotion as he delivered his speech.
"All that was asked of you was to say a short, authoritative and moving sentence. All you had to do was to express regret. That's all we wanted to hear," the mass-selling Yedioth Ahronoth daily said in an editorial.
The Vatican meanwhile struck out at what it said were false media reports that Benedict had been drafted into the Hitler Youth in 1941.
"The pope has said he never, never was a member of the Hitler Youth, which was a movement of fanatical volunteers," Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told a news conference.
As a 16-year-old seminarian, the pope was a member of an auxiliary air defense squadron "that had nothing to do with Nazism or Nazi ideology," the spokesman said.
The statement ran counter to what the pontiff had said in numerous interviews, in which he stated that he was an involuntary member of the Hitler Youth during World War II.
The pope has said the central aim of his visit is to comfort rapidly dwindling Christian communities in the region, and on Tuesday he told an assembly of Catholic bishops that the Christian presence in the Holy Land is "of vital importance for the good of society as a whole."
"I express with affection my personal closeness in this situation of human insecurity, daily suffering, fear and hope (in) which you are living."