Pope's visit to Mideast has varied reactions

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JERUSALEM -- A conflict largely defined by dueling narratives became a battle of competing imagery during Pope Francis' sojourn through the Holy Land, with Palestinians and Israelis both seizing on the pontiff's strong symbolic gestures to promote their perspectives.

A day after a photograph of Pope Francis touching his forehead to the graffiti-scarred concrete barrier separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem rocketed around the Internet, the pope acceded to Israel's request that he add to his packed Monday morning another unscheduled stop, at the Mount Herzl memorial to victims of terrorist attacks. There, too, Pope Francis bowed his head, while pressing a hand to one of 78 tablets listing the names of the fallen.

"I explained to the pope that building the security fence prevented many more victims that Palestinian terror -- which continues today -- planned to harm," Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said afterward. Later, he added, "I long for the day in which Pope Francis' call to recognize the state of Israel, the right of Jews to a state of their own, to live in security and peace, will be accepted by our neighbors."

That was just one of the poignant photo opportunities of the pope at some of Judaism's most sacred sites. He placed a note with the "Our Father" prayer handwritten in Spanish between the ancient stones of the Western Wall. He kissed the hands of six survivors -- one saved as a baby by a Catholic family -- at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. He became the first Vatican leader to lay a wreath of signature yellow and white flowers on the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism.

This montage was, according to the chief Vatican spokesman, intended to provide counterbalance to Sunday's silent prayer at the barrier, which had incensed some Israelis, particularly because it was at a section where the spray-painted slogans included "apartheid wall" and "Bethlehem is like the Warsaw Ghetto."

Diana Buttu, a Palestinian analyst, pointed out that the Israeli sites visited by Pope Francis on Monday were monuments to the past that heads of state routinely visit per protocol, while the barrier "is ongoing, something that Palestinians live with every day." It remains unclear whether the Palestinians had planned the stop or even pressured the pope to make it, but Ms. Buttu said the seeming spontaneity lent it strength.

Still, Monday's stop at Israel's memorial to victims of terrorism -- where Mr. Netanyahu pointed out the plaque commemorating the 85 people slain in a 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in the pope's native Buenos Aires -- was something of a salve. Daniel Gordis, an American-Israeli rabbi who wrote a Twitter post Sunday saying he hoped the pope had prayed at the barrier "for end to Palestinian violence so it can come down one day," said that Monday's activities made "it clear that he understands the complexity of the narrative."

Also Monday, Pope Francis announced he would meet soon with a group of sex abuse victims at the Vatican and declared "zero tolerance" for any member of the clergy who would violate a child.


Associated Press contributed.


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