Trip to Holy Land was a great gift for church, says pope

Francis acknowledges major reason for trip was to ‘encourage the road to peace’

Pope Francis salutes as he arrives for his weekly general audience in St Peter’s Square, at the Vatican, yesterday. Photograph: Andrew Medichini/AP

Pope Francis salutes as he arrives for his weekly general audience in St Peter’s Square, at the Vatican, yesterday. Photograph: Andrew Medichini/AP

Thu, May 29, 2014, 01:00

Back in Rome yesterday after his historic three-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Pope Francis called his trip “a great gift” for the church.

Speaking at his weekly public audience, he said: “I thank God for this visit. He guided me through that blessed land where Jesus was present and where there occurred events of fundamental importance for Judaism, Christianity and Islam . . .”

Thanking his Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian hosts, the pope insisted the major reason for his visit had been to meet with the Ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew. His joint prayer with Bartholomew and with the Greek Orthodox and Armenian patriarchs of Jerusalem at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, he said, indicated that these Christian churches should all “walk forward together”.

The pope also acknowledged a major reason for the trip had been to “encourage the road to peace” in the region. For that reason, he had invited Israeli president Shimon Peres and president of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas, “both men of peace”, to come to Rome to pray with him, adding:

“And please, I ask you not to leave us alone, you pray too, pray so that the Good Lord will grant us peace in that blessed land.”

Even as the pope was expressing that wish, there were indications that not everyone sees him as a neutral peacebroker in the conflict-ridden Middle East. Reflecting on his visit, Tuesday’s Jerusalem Post said that “Francis is leading the church in a distressingly anti-Jewish direction”.

Criticism of pope

In particular, Israel’s authoritative daily was critical of his decision to stop in front of the Israeli-built dividing wall between Israel and Palestine, commenting: “Had he actually cared about the cause of peace and non-violence he claims to champion, Francis might have averred from stopping at the barrier, recognising that doing so would defile the memory of . . . hundreds of Israeli Jewish families who were destroyed by Palestinian bloodlust and anti-Semitic depravity.”

The Jerusalem Post deplored the pope “reverentially” touching the wall as if it were the Wailing Wall at the point where a slogan read, “Bethlehem looks like the Warsaw ghetto”: “That slogan equated the Palestinians in Bethlehem to the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. In other words, it denied the Holocaust.”