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Pope Francis Ends Historic Mideast Trip

May 26, 2014
Originally published on May 26, 2014 3:43 pm
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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Pope Francis wrapped up a three-day visit to the Middle East today. The enduring image will likely be of him, head bowed, hands flat on a wall in front of him. But which wall?

As NPR's Emily Harris reports, each of the three times the pope did this holds its own potent symbolism.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: When Pope Francis rode into Bethlehem's Manger Square for mass on Sunday, he was welcomed with a roar.

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HARRIS: But on his way, he'd done something that pleased most Palestinians even more. He stopped for a few minutes, and prayed at a tall concrete wall at a spot where the words, "Free Palestine", were spray-painted in red. A small crowd had gathered earlier at this spot along the Pope's route. The wall is part of the barrier Israel has built in and around Bethlehem and the West Bank, citing security. But much of it cuts into land Palestinians expect to become part of a future Palestinian state. Palestinian Priest, Father Jamal Hudder (ph) says the Pope's gesture showed the wall must come down.

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JAMAL HUDDER: Walls do not resolve the problem. Walls are imprisoning the Palestinians - are separating families. Security comes from good relations with neighbors, and not with walls and arms.

HARRIS: That prayer stop was one of several demonstrations of support and sympathy Pope Francis showed for the Palestinians during his time in Bethlehem. Then today, at a meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister told the Pope, the wall keeps Israelis safe.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: (Through translator) If the incitement against the state of Israel ceases, along with the terrorism, there will be no need for the means that we have undertaken, such as the security fence, which has saved lives- thousands of lives.

HARRIS: At Netanyahu's request, the Pope added to his packed schedule today a short stop at Israel's memorial to victims of terrorism. Here, the Pope also paused at a wall, head down, hand on a shiny black plaque.

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HARRIS: The day included other Israeli monuments as well. Children sang for Pope Francis at Israel's Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem. He kissed the hands of six Holocaust survivors, heard their stories and prayed that such a horror would never happen again. He also became the first Pope to lay a wreath at the grave of the founder of Zionism, the philosophy behind Israel's statehood. The other stop by a wall to pray was at the site most sacred for Jews. The Pope spent a few minutes alone at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City. Just before, he had visited Islam's holiest shrine in Jerusalem. This was part of his intent to promote good interfaith relationships. And his bowed head at the Western Wall seemed more spiritual than political. But the Pope merged politics and spirituality throughout this trip.

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HARRIS: At mass in Bethlehem, he publically invited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to join him at the Vatican to pray for peace. Rabbi David Rosen, of the American Jewish Committee, says Peres is not a player in peace talks. But he hopes the meeting might open a new kind of communications channel.

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DAVID ROSEN: It might not be realistic, but it's miraculously potential. And it has potential to do something very significant.

HARRIS: To back up his hope, Rosen quotes David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, speaking about the creation of Israel. Anyone who doesn't believe in miracles, Ben-Gurion said, isn't a realist. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.