Pope Francis navigated the minefield of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and humbly bowed to kiss the hands of Holocaust survivors on Monday, the last day of a Mideast trip laden with bold personal gestures.
“Never again, Lord. Never again!” he said in the dimly lit Hall of Remembrance in the Yad Vashem Museum which commemorates six million Jews killed by the Nazis in World War Two.
The fourth pope to visit Israel, Francis had earlier became the first to lay a wreath at the tomb of Theodor Herzl, seen as the founder of modern Zionism that led to Israel’s foundation. At the request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he also made an unannounced stop at Israel’s “Memorial to the Victims of Terror”, the day after unexpectedly praying at a towering Israeli security wall that is despised by Palestinians.
A day packed with political and religious encounters began at the gold-topped Dome of the Rock, the pope taking off his shoes before walking into the Jerusalem shrine from which Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammed climbed to heaven.
Francis then went to pray at the adjacent Western Wall, one the Jews’ most revered shrines and a sole remnant of their sacred Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.
Later, as he was introduced to six survivors of Nazi concentration camps and told of their stories of struggle, he bent slowly to kiss the hand of each elderly person. Reading a haunting personal reflection, he called the Holocaust “a boundless tragedy”.