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Pope wraps Mideast visit fraught with zigzagging political symbolism

Pope Francis calls on monotheistic faiths not to 'abuse the name God through violence' during visit to Jerusalem

JERUSALEM — Pope Francis finished his three-day visit to the Holy Land on Monday with a whirlwind tour of religious and other sites, including an unscheduled stop arranged by the Israeli prime minister as a final act of political symbolism in a tour which saw the pontiff weave through such gestures.

A day after he was seen to boost Palestinian aspirations by praying at Israel's separation wall surrounding Bethlehem, Francis accepted Israel's last-minute request to pray at a memorial to victims of suicide bombings and other attacks. It capped a balancing act of a tour for Francis, in which his every move was monitored for wider significance.

The pontiff’s itinerary on the final day covered Al-Aqsa mosque and the Western Wall; meetings with Israel’s president, prime minister, and two chief rabbis; a trip to the Holocaust memorial and a private mass in Jerusalem at a contentious site.

Much of his day was sterile in contrast to Sunday’s colorful mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square and several public events in Jordan the day before. Jerusalem’s streets and holy places had been cleared for the pope, and he had no opportunity to talk to pilgrims or residents of the city.

He started the morning at Al-Aqsa, the third-holiest site in Islam, where he met with the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammad Hussein. The pope urged members of the three monotheistic faiths, "all communities who look to Abraham" not to "abuse the name of God through violence."

The grand mufti said: "Peace in this land will not happen until the end of the occupation, and when people get their freedom and full rights."

The pope then visited the Western Wall, the remains of the biblical Second Temple and the holiest site at which Jews are permitted to pray. He followed tradition and left a written prayer inside the cracks of the wall, reportedly the text of the Lord’s Prayer written in his native Spanish.

Politics and prayers

It was his next stop, at the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionist ideology, that provided the day’s political moment. The visit itself was symbolic: Francis became the first pope to lay flowers on the grave, 110 years after Pope Pius X met Herzl and rejected the idea of a Jewish state.

Afterwards, at the behest of the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, the pope made a brief stop at a nearby memorial for Jews killed by Palestinians. It was seemingly a response to the pope’s unplanned prayer yesterday at the separation wall between Israel and the occupied West Bank, a dramatic moment which provided the defining image of his trip.

"If the incitement against the state of Israel ceases, along with the terrorism, there will be no need for ... the security fence, which has saved lives," Netanyahu told the pope during a private meeting later, using the preferred Israeli name for the barrier.

Netanyahu and the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, met Francis separately on Monday afternoon. Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have both accepted an invitation to a "joint prayer for peace" at the Vatican on June 6.

The pope’s final stop before the airport was a mass at the Cenacle, the site where Christians believe Jesus held the Last Supper. Jews believe it is the burial site of the biblical King David, and several groups held protests in the run-up to the pope’s visit, believing that Israel was planning to give the Vatican sovereignty over the site. Monday’s mass was uneventful, however.

Al Jazeera and wire services. Gregg Carlstrom contributed to this report.

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