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Pope in Final Day of Middle East Visit

  • VOA News

Pope Francis is scheduled to meet Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres. He will also visit Israel's national cemetery, Mount Herzl, and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

In a welcome ceremony with the Israeli leaders, the pope said, "The right of the state of Israel to exist and to flourish in peace and security within internationally recognized borders must be universally recognized.”

Earlier Monday, the leader of the world's 1.3 billion Roman Catholics will meet with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, at the al-Aqsa mosque complex in Jerusalem's Old City, and visit the Dome of the Rock. The mosque compound is built on Judaism's holiest site where the biblical First and Second Temples are believed to have stood. The compound is considered the third holiest site in Islam.

Monday is the last day of the pope's three-day Middle Eastern visit.

On Sunday, Israeli President Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accepted Pope Francis' invitation to come to the Vatican and pray for peace with him.

Speaking in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Francis said the time has come "for everyone to find the courage to be generous and creative" in ending "a protracted conflict that has inflicted many wounds."

The pope presided Sunday over a joint prayer service with Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and buried.

Francis also celebrated Mass at Bethlehem's Manger Square, near the site where Christians believe Jesus was born, before meeting with Palestinian children in Deheisheh Refugee Camp.

Saturday, in Jordan, Francis held talks with King Abdullah and heard first-hand accounts of the suffering of refugees who have fled Iraq and Syria for the safety of makeshift encampments in Jordan.

Previous popes have always gone to the West Bank after first arriving in Tel Aviv, Israel. Francis' itinerary is being viewed as a symbolic nod to Palestinian aspirations for their own state.

The papal visit comes just weeks after the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed, with the Israelis accusing Abbas of sabotaging the talks by agreeing to a unity deal with Hamas Islamists who run the Gaza Strip.

In the West Bank, Francis hailed the good relations between the Holy See and Palestine. Palestinian President Abbas said he told the pope Sunday that Israel is forcing Christians and Muslims out of Jerusalem.

In its official program, the Vatican referred to Palestinian President Abbas as the president of the "state of Palestine," and his Bethlehem office as the "presidential palace."

Both Israelis and Palestinians have been trying to harness the Pope's standing as leader of the world's Roman Catholics to bolster their dueling narratives.

Some information for this report provided by Reuters and AP.

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