JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Pope Francis completes a tour of the Holy Land on Monday, paying homage to Jews killed in the Nazi Holocaust and looking to affirm Christian rights at a disputed place of worship in Jerusalem.
After visits to Jordan and the Palestinian Territories - including praying at the wall dividing Bethlehem from Jerusalem, Francis spends the third and final day of his trip in the latter with a slate of political and religious encounters and visits to some of the most sensitive holy sites in the world.
Francis has used his trip so far to plea for an end to the generations-old Middle East conflict, inviting the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to join him in the Vatican early next month and pray for peace.
Both Shimon Peres, who plays no decision-making role in Israeli diplomacy, and Mahmoud Abbas accepted the offer. It follows the collapse of U.S.-backed peace talks last month, and there was little hope that the highly unusual encounter could break decades of mutual mistrust and deadlock.
The pope, risking dismaying Israeli leaders, made a surprise stop in Bethlehem on Sunday at the wall Palestinians abhor as a symbol of Israeli oppression.
In an image likely to become one of the most emblematic of his trip to the holy land, Francis rested his forehead against the concrete structure that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem, and prayed against the backdrop of anti-Israeli graffiti.
Francis is due to meet both Peres and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, after spending time at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum which commemorates some 6 million Jews slaughtered during World War Two.
Speaking minutes after landing in Israel on Sunday, the pope said the Holocaust was “an enduring symbol of the depths to which human evil can sink”, adding: “I beg God that there will never be another such crime.”
In a decision that delighted his hosts, Francis is also set to lay a wreath at the tomb of Theodor Herzl, who is seen as the founder of modern Zionism that led to Israel’s foundation.
The Catholic Church initially opposed the creation of a Jewish state, and the three other pontiffs who have come to Jerusalem over the past 50 years did not visit the site.
“We commend and appreciate your decision to lay a wreath on the grave of Binyamin Zev Herzl,” Netanyahu said on Sunday, using Herzl’s Hebrew name.
Religion plays a high profile role in Monday’s timetable, with the pope due to celebrate Mass in the Cenacle - a room just outside the walls of the Old City where Christians believe Jesus held the Last Supper with his disciples.
It is located on the second floor of an old stone building, above a cavern where some Jews believe King David is buried.
Speculation that Israeli officials were set to hand the Cenacle over to the Church has sparked protests by Jewish nationalists. Police arrested 26 people at a rowdy demonstration early on Sunday ahead of the pope’s visit.
Israel denies it plans to relinquish control of the site.
Some 8,000 police are on hand to guarantee the pope’s security following recent vandalism of church property blamed on Jewish extremists. Roads will be closed and shopkeepers in parts of the Old City have complained of being forced to shutter their stores all day to keep the stone streets empty.
Looking to strengthen inter-religious ties, Francis will see the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem early on Monday at the site Muslims call the Nobel Sanctuary and which Jews refer to as the Temple Mount - a source of constant friction over the years.
He will then visit the Western Wall, believed to be a remnant of a perimeter wall of the biblical temple complex, the holiest shrine of the Jewish world, and later hold talks with the two chief rabbis of Israel.
Additional reporting by Dan Williams. Editing by Jeremy Gaunt.