Pope Benedict made the strongest appeal for peace of his entire trip as he prepared to depart for Rome on Friday. During his farewell speech at the Ben Gurion International Airport, the Pope stressed the need for universal recognition of Israel's right to exist and the Palestinians' “right to a sovereign independent homeland.”
President Shimon Peres, who delivered a speech before the Pope, said the trip “constituted a significant contribution to the new relations between the Vatican and Jerusalem.”
“I hope that your visit enabled you and your delegation to experience the traits of our land... above all the sincere aspiration for peace shared by all Israelis—peace with our neighbors, peace with distant enemies, peace for all,” Peres said.
The Israeli president also added that “today's political and spiritual leaders face a profound challenge: how to divorce religion from terror. How to prevent terrorists from hijacking the religious conscience by cloaking an act of terrorism in the false guise of a religious mission.”
Peres argued that because of Pope Benedict's “great spiritual leadership” he can “help people to recognize that God is not in the hearts of terrorists.”
The Pope then took the podium and recalled that he and President Peres planted an olive tree at his house on the day he arrived in Israel. According to St. Paul, the Pope stated, the olive tree is a sign of “very close relations” between Christians and Jews.
He recounted how moving it was to meet Holocaust survivors at Yad Vashem, and said that the encounters reminded him of his visit to the “death camp Auschwitz” three years ago. There, many Jews were “brutally exterminated under a godless regime that propagated an ideology of anti-Semitism and hatred. That appalling chapter of history must never be forgotten or denied. On the contrary, those dark memories should strengthen our determination to draw closer to one another as branches of the same olive tree, nourished from the same roots and united in brotherly love.”
Benedict XVI then said that he wanted to “put on record that I came to visit this country as a friend of the Israelis, just as I am a friend of the Palestinian people.”
However, Pope Benedict shared that the fighting between Israelis and Palestinians over the past six decades has brought him deep distress and that he believes no friend can fail to weep at the suffering and loss of life.
The Holy Father pleaded with the Palestinians and Israelis, crying, “No more bloodshed! No more fighting! No more terrorism! No more war! Instead let us break the vicious circle of violence. Let there be lasting peace based on justice, let there be genuine reconciliation and healing.”
The way toward peace, asserted the Pope, is for it to be “universally recognized that the State of Israel has the right to exist, and to enjoy peace and security within internationally agreed borders” and “likewise acknowledged that the Palestinian people have a right to a sovereign independent homeland, to live with dignity and to travel freely.”
“Let the two-state solution become a reality, not remain a dream. And let peace spread outwards from these lands, let them serve as a 'light to the nations,' bringing hope to the many other regions that are affected by conflict,” Pope Benedict entreated.
The Pope went even further in lamenting the strife afflicting the region by decrying the Israeli-built security wall.
“One of the saddest sights for me during my visit to these lands was the wall. As I passed alongside it, I prayed for a future in which the peoples of the Holy Land can live together in peace and harmony without the need for such instruments of security and separation, but rather respecting and trusting one another, and renouncing all forms of violence and aggression,” he said.
“Mr. President,” Benedict said, “I know how hard it will be to achieve that goal. I know how difficult is your task, and that of the Palestinian Authority. But I assure you that my prayers and the prayers of Catholics across the world are with you as you continue your efforts to build a just and lasting peace in this region.”