President Shimon Peres on Sunday praised Lionel Messi and his fellow Barcelona stars as “messengers of peace” as they made a brief visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
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“Israeli and Palestinian children dream of two goals,” Peres told the visitors in remarks broadcast on public radio. “Scoring the winning goal at Camp Nou, and the great goal of peace.”
On their arrival Saturday for their "Peace Tour", the players and staff were greeted by 25,000 fans, including Mohammad Assaf, the Gaza singer who won the ‘Arab Idol’ talent show earlier this year. The team went to the West Bank city of Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity, where Jesus is believed to have been born.
After meeting Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas at his Ramallah headquarters, they also held a soccer clinic near the southern West Bank town of Dura.
On Sunday they visited Jerusalem’s Old City to stand at the Western Wall, the holiest site at which Jews can pray.
After a reception at Peres’ Jerusalem residence, the team was due later to give a coaching session to Israeli youngsters in Tel Aviv.
"Barca is more than just a club,” Peres said at the reception. “You became each of you messengers of peace. Sport, and football in particular, breaks down barriers. In football there are no victims but always hope for the next match.”
On Saturday, Jibril Rajoub, the president of the Palestinian football federation, said he hoped that when Barcelona visited again in the future, it would be in “an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel”.
“Sport is the best way to overcome hate and hostility,” said Rajoub, who described the visit as an “historic day”.
The training sessions were organized by the Peres Centre for Peace as well as the Israeli and Palestinian football federations.
In October 2012, Barcelona caused controversy when former Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held for five years on the Gaza Strip, was invited to watch the Classico match between Barca and Real Madrid. It was a decision that sparked calls for a boycott of the Catalan club