Pope Francis said farewell to Israel on Monday evening after a historic three-day visit to the Holy Land, leaving behind newly earned fans as well as politicians amazed at the unprecedented invitation he extended for a peace prayer summit in Rome.
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A church delegation in long black robes and fuchsia sashes arrived at Ben-Gurion International Airport, lining the red carpet to help accompany the pope to the El-Al plane awaiting him. President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met him on the runway and escorted him to the stairs of the plane. A military honor guard and musicians accompanied the pope with the honors granted to heads of state.
After being surrounded by a sea of black — which seemed to be the color of choice for clergymen as well as political officials Monday — the man in white ascended the steps against a hazy pink sky, turned around and waved goodbye.
The pope’s departure marked the end of his first trip to the region as pontiff, one that was markedly unlike the visits of his two immediate predecessors. Whereas Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II seemed set on avoiding forays into politics and largely settled on calling for peace and justice in the region, Pope Francis took the unexpected step of calling for a prayer meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, leaving people on both sides of the divide abuzz with the potential implications.
When Pope Benedict visited in 2009, he accepted an invitation from the Aida refugee camp, near Bethlehem. But when it became apparent that camp officials had designed a stage and bleachers on a small field in the shadow of the separation barrier, potentially creating an iconic photo op against the high cement wall that Palestinians wanted shown and Israeli officials didn’t, the Vatican asked to have the pope speak indoors instead.
Pope Francis, by contrast, paused pensively near Bethlehem to touch the controversial wall running through the West Bank, bowing his head near the words “Free Palestine.”
Uzi Landau, Israel’s tourism minister and a member of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, called the pope’s move a “mistake” that should have been avoided.
“Whoever brought him to the wall was wrong to have allowed it to happen, because it completely distorts the reality in the Middle East,” Landau said in a phone interview with Haaretz. Landau did note, however, that he considered it an enormously successful visit from the point of view of Jewish-Catholic relations.
When Pope Paul VI came on his first Middle East tour half a century ago, he would not meet any Israeli officials in Jerusalem. Sixty years before that, the 1904 meeting in which Theodor Herzl asked Pope Pius X to support a Jewish state ended disastrously, with the pope refusing to support Herzl’s campaign and saying that Jerusalem would never be under Jewish sovereignty. In what many in Israel saw as the pinnacle of the changed attitude of the Vatican, Pope Francis laid a wreath at Herzl’s grave on Monday, becoming the first pope in history to do so.
Citing the pope’s visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, Amnon Ramon, a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies and a lecturer in comparative religion at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the trip was a successful one for Israel-Vatican relations.
“I was very happy with the pope’s speech at Yad Vashem, and the way he related to the Holocaust survivors,” said Ramon. “The last pope didn’t come out well on this front, because the whole focus of Pope Benedict’s visit was to apologize or not to apologize for the Holocaust, and Pope Francis did not need to go there at all. Instead, he... [focused] on the larger humanitarian lesson of the Holocaust. To me, this was the height of the visit.”
Meanwhile, the pope has thrown Israeli and Palestinian leaders a political curveball in the form of his request that Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas join him in a prayer meeting in Rome.
Ramon said it was unclear whether Pope Francis’ invitation was issued on the spur of the moment or was planned beforehand, adding, “It’s more or less what the pope decided that he could do.”
Many will find it difficult to be enthusiastic about the upcoming prayer powwow when Peres has so little time left in office, Ramon noted, and realpolitik suggests that Israeli-Palestinian prospects look particularly dim. “From a cynical point of view it’s not too clear that something will come out of this,” said Ramon. “But from the Catholic point of view, for many people, the prayer of the pope can really affect reality. A lot of Catholics believe that he prayed for peace in Syria last September, and then President Barack Obama did not attack.”
“From almost every perspective,” said Ramon, “this was an excellent visit.”