Pope Benedict XVI has wrapped up his visit to the Holy Land with a message of hope for peace. The pope left Tel Aviv Friday following a five-day journey to Israel and the Palestinian territories in which he pledged support for Palestinian statehood, paid tribute to Holocaust victims, and called on Christians to hold fast as their numbers in the Holy Land dwindle. He also drew criticism from the Israelis for his strong show of solidarity with the Palestinians.
Pope Benedict ended his visit to Jerusalem with a moment of prayer at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is on the spot revered by most Christian denominations as the place where Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected nearly 2,000 years ago.
Words of encouragement
The head of the Roman Catholic Church prayed at the empty tomb believed to be that of Christ. He had words of encouragement for those who live in constant turmoil on this land.
"The empty tomb speaks to us of hope, the hope that does not disappoint because it is the gift of the spirit of life. This is the message that I wish to leave with you today at the conclusion of my pilgrimage to the Holy Land," the pope said. "May hope rise up ever new by God's Grace in the words of all the people dwelling in these lands. May it take root in your hearts and inspire each of you and your faithful witness for the Prince of Peace."
Building culture of peace
During his five-day trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, the pope - head of the world's largest denomination of Christians - pushed for the strengthening of bonds among the three major religions that converge here, reaching out to Jews and Muslims. In homilies to Palestinians, he called for the building of a culture of peace and a rejection of hatred, anger, and violence.
In the final remarks of his journey, the pontiff called on people here not to lose hope.
"The Gospel reassures us that God can make all things new, that history need not be repeated, that memories can be healed, that the bitter fruits of recrimination and hostility can be overcome and that a future of justice, peace, prosperity and cooperation can arise for every man and woman, for the whole human family, and in a special way for the people who dwell in this land so dear to the heart of the Savior," Pope Benedict said.
The 82-year-old pontiff balanced his purpose of pilgrimage with politics. The visit was less than peaceful at times.
Israel criticizes message to Palestinians
He got criticism from the Israelis after speaking in defense of the Palestinians who are living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank, and pledging the Vatican's support for the Palestinians' right to a homeland. He also expressed solidarity with the people of Gaza following Israel's recent assault on militants there, and called for the lifting of the embargo imposed by Israel and Egypt.
Some Israelis also accused him of not expressing enough regret when he paid tribute - early in his visit - to the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
In his remarks on the Tarmac before his return to Rome, the pope renewed his call for Palestinian statehood and called Israel's security barrier one of the saddest sites of his visit. He summed up the call he made throughout this trip, which he said was a pilgrimage of peace.
"Allow me to make this appeal to all the people of these lands: No more bloodshed. No more fighting. No more terrorism. No more war," he said.
Pontiff reaches out to Israelis
The pope reached out to the Israelis as he left.
He recalled his visit to Israel's Holocaust memorial as one of the most solemn moments of his trip, and repeated his call for the Holocaust never to be denied.
The pontiff met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday. Mr. Netanyahu says he asked the pope to use his authority as a moral figure to make his voice heard against statements from Iran about its intention to destroy the Jewish State. The Israeli leader said the pope condemns all manifestations of anti-Semitism and hatred, and he said he believes the pope lent a sympathetic ear.
Mr. Netanyahu, along with Israeli President Shimon Peres, were among those bidding Pope Benedict farewell at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport.