Israel’s President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greeted the pontiff at Ben Gurion International airport near Tel Aviv. A band welcomed the Pope with a rendition of the song, Jerusalem of Gold.
“You have arrived in the State of Israel where today members of different religions and nationalities live together – Jews, Christians, Muslims, Druse and Circassians,” said Peres in an address at the welcoming ceremony. “Israel is a Jewish and democratic state where coexistence in peace is implemented, and a state that aspires for peace with all its neighbors. Even if peace calls for sacrifices, the sacrifices of peace are preferable to the threat of war.”
“We welcome the arrival of Pope Francis to the Land of Israel, the Holy Land,” Netanyahu said at the weekly cabinet meeting earlier in the day. “His visit here is an opportunity to show the world the true Israel, the advanced, modern and tolerant Israel, in effect, the only country in the Middle East that ensures complete freedom of worship to those of all faiths, guards the holy places and ensures the rights of all – Jews, Muslims, Christians, everybody.”
The reason for the pontiff’s visit to the region now is to mark the 50th anniversary of a historic meeting in Jerusalem between his predecessor Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I that ended 900 years of Catholic-Orthodox estrangement. The pope and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I will preside over a special joint prayer service in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Monday (May 26).
Pope Francis arrived at Ben-Gurion International Airport and quickly departed by helicopter to Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. He was to attend an ecumenical meeting on the occasion of the anniversary and then dine with Patriarchs and Bishops at the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem.
The Catholic pope began his Mideast trip in Amman where he called for peace in the region.
“Peace isn’t something which can be bought; it is a gift to be sought patiently and to be crafted through the actions, great and small, of our everyday lives,” the pope said.
The pontiff left Amman on Sunday morning by helicopter, touched down in Bethlehem, and then arrived in Israel’s capital.
Pope Francis made a second call for peace after meeting with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and celebrating Mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, the biblical birthplace of Jesus.
“The time has come for everyone to find the courage to be generous and creative in the service of the common good,” he said.
He also invited Peres and Abbas to come and meet at the Vatican and end what he called the “unacceptable” stalemate in peace talks.
“In this, the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, I wish to invite you, President Mahmoud Abbas, together with President Shimon Peres, to join me in heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace,” the Pope said. “I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer.” Both presidents readily agreed to the invitation.
Tomorrow, Pope Francis will have one-on-one meetings with Peres, Netanyahu, the grand mufti of Jerusalem and Israel’s chief rabbis. His schedule includes prayers at the Western Wall, laying a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl, a meeting with 500 priests and seminarians in the Church of Gethsemane, the planting of a tree, and a visit to the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem.