AMID THE controversies that preceded his visit to the Holy Land, Pope Benedict XVI stressed that his eight-day trip should be regarded as a pilgrimage of peace in the name of the Catholic Church.

“We are not a political power, but a spiritual force, and this spiritual force is a reality that can contribute to advances in the peace process,” he said in an interview with the media during his flight to the Holy Land.

The Vatican had earlier announced that the trip was dedicated to the cause of inter-religious dialogue with Islam and Judaism and to visit holy places in Israel, Jordan and Palestinian territories.

In his reflection on his pilgrimage, the Holy Father underlined the three main impressions of his trip: willingness of the religious leaders for an interfaith dialogue, support for ecumenism as seen in cordial meetings with the Orthodox world and the existence of great difficulties.

“The difficulties are more visible,” the Pope said. “What is not so visible is the shared desire for peace and brotherhood.”

“I came as a pilgrim and I hope that many will follow this example, thus encouraging the unity of the people of this Holy Land and becoming in their turn messengers of peace.”

Pilgrim of peace

Jerusalem, the crossroads of the three monotheistic religions, is home to the Dome of the Rock, a sacred place to all three faiths. The Pope described it as a “city that affords Jews, Christians and Muslims both the duty and the privilege to bear witness together to the peaceful coexistence.”

The Holy Father made history as the first pope to visit the Dome of the Rock, a seventh-century gilded Muslim dome. His visit also marked the third time a pontiff stepped foot at a Muslim house of prayer.

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“Here the paths of the world’s three great monotheistic religions meet, reminding us what they share in common,” the Pope said in his speech at the holy site. He called on the faithful “to play an active role in mending divisions and promoting human solidarity.”

“It is paramount that those who adore the One God should show themselves to be both grounded in and directed toward the unity of the entire human family,” he said.

The Pope paid a courtesy visit to Grand Mufti, Muhammad Ahmad Hussein at the dome. For Muslims, it is their faith’s third holy site where the prophet Mohammed, founder of Islam, ascended to heaven. For the Jews, it is the altar of sacrifice where Abraham prepared to offer his son to God and for Christians, it is where many important events in the life of Christ happened.

Fr. Efren Rivera, O.P., associate professor of Sacred Scriptures at the UST Faculty of Sacred Theology downplayed controversies that surrounded Benedict’s three-day visit to Jordan.

Much of these controversies was triggered by his statement at the Presidential Palace that the wall dividing Bethlehem from Jerusalem should be taken down. He expressed his anguish over the wall as a “stark reminder of the stalemate that relations between Israelis and Palestinians seem to have reached – the wall.”

“First, though, it is necessary to remove the walls that we build around our hearts, the barriers that we set up against our neighbors,” the Pope said.

In response to his remark, Israel government spokesman Mark Regev said that the wall built in 2002 only served as a security barrier from the suicide bombers of Palestine.

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The Pontiff drew even more attention with his call for a Palestinian state.

“Let it be likewise acknowledged that the Palestinian people have a right to a sovereign independent homeland, to live with dignity and to travel freely,” the Pope said in his speech at the departure ceremony in Tel Aviv, Israel.

According to Rivera, the conservative Israelis were willing to give Palestinians autonomy as a minority, but they remained unreceptive to a Palestinian state.

The Pope later condemned the death of six million Jews in the Holocaust during his visit at the Yad Vashem Memorial.

“May the names of these victims never perish! May their suffering never be denied, belittled or forgotten!” he said.

Earlier in his visit in Jordan, the Pope blessed the cornerstone of two new Catholic Churches– the Latin Rite and the Greek Melkite, to be built beside the Jordan River. This, the Pope said, was “a sign of the respect of the Hashemite Kingdom has for religious freedom and the Christian tradition.”

Other holy sites he visited were Mt. Nebo from which Moses saw the Promised Land, Jesus’ place of baptism, Jordan River, Holy Sepulchre, the tomb in which the Body of Jesus Christ was laid after His death and the Wailing Wall, where he slipped his own prayer in the cracks of the 2,000-year-old stones.

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