Pope John Paul was one of the most travelled human beings in history. Of all the journeys he undertook as Pontiff, few could match the emotion and symbolism of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the Year 2000.
- The Tablet
On his arrival in Bethlehem, the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, had welcomed him 'to Palestine, Bethlehem and to Jerusalem, the eternal capital of Palestine.' The Palestinians greatly appreciated his 'just positions in support of the Palestinian cause,' he said.
The Pope spoke bluntly. 'No one can ignore how much the Palestinian people have had to suffer in recent decades,' he said. 'Your torment is before the eyes of the world. And it has gone on too long.'
On 23 March came the Pope's visit to the Holocaust memorial of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Prime Minister Ehud Barak welcomed him and led him into the darkened hall.
Speaking with great emotion, the Pope said 'As Bishop of Rome and successor of the Apostle Peter, I assure the Jewish people that the Catholic Church is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against Jews by Christians at any time and in any place.'
The Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, whose Polish parents died at Treblinka, responded: 'You have done more than anyone else to bring about a historic change in the attitude of the Church towards the Jewish people, initiated by the good Pope John XXIII, and to dress the gaping wounds that festered over many bitter centuries.'
Present to meet the 'Pope were Holocaust survivors. One, Edith Tzirer, says she owed her life to him. She had been in the SkarzyskoKammiena labour camp as a Jewish teenager, and when released was too weak to walk.
Then the young Polish priest Karol Wojtyla gave her bread and tea before carrying her on his back for three kilometres to a railway station. Now when she met him again, she broke down in tears.
On Sunday, his final day in the Holy Land, under heavy security, the Pope visited the Grand Mufti, Sheikh Ilcrimah Sabri, in the grounds of the Al Aqsa Mosque, the holiest Muslim shrine in Jerusalem.
The Pope went on from the mosque to the Wailing Wall. He put his trembling hand on it and prayed. After some time, he moved away, then stopped, took a paper from his secretary and returned to the Wall, placed it in a crevice and blessed it.
The text was the same as the one he had read at the request for pardon in St Peter's some weeks earlier.
'God of our fathers,' it said, 'you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations. We are deeply saddened by the behaviour of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer and, asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.'
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