Pope in thick of Mideast conflict

JERUSALEM: Pope Benedict XVI waded into the heart of the Middle East conflict on Tuesday, calling for the faithful to overcome past discord and reiterating the Church's commitment to reconciliation with Jews.

"Here the path of the world's three great monotheistic religions meet, reminding us what they share in common," Benedict said as he became the first pope to visit the Dome of the Rock shrine inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, a site holy to Jews and Muslims.

"This sacred place serves as a stimulus, and also challenges men and women of goodwill to work to overcome misunderstandings and conflicts of the past and set out on the path of a sincere dialogue," he said.

The pontiff arrived at the Dome of the Rock early on Tuesday, taking off his red shoes before entering the shrine whose huge golden cupola has become Jerusalem's main distinguishing landmark.

The compound in which it stands in the Old City is the holiest place in Judaism and third-holiest in Islam and has often been a flashpoint in the Middle East conflict, most recently when the second Palestinian uprising erupted there in 2000.

Snipers scanned the area from atop minarets and helicopters hovered above as Israeli security swarmed the plaza that overlooks the Wailing Wall, a sacred area that is a top pilgrimage site for Jews where the pope headed next.

"God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob ... send your peace upon this Holy Land, upon the Middle East, upon the entire human family," the pope wrote on a piece of paper that he stuck in the cracks of the ancient wall.

The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Hussein, urged the pontiff to work to end Israeli "aggression" against Palestinians.

"We look forward for your holiness's effective role in putting an end to the ongoing aggression against our people, our land, and our holy sites in Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank," he said.

The Old City of Jerusalem was nearly a ghost town on Tuesday as security obsessed Israel beefed up measures for the leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics on his first official trip to Israel and the occupied West Bank.

Benedict's trip is aimed in part at boosting Israel-Vatican ties and in a meeting with Israel's two chief rabbis on Tuesday, the pontiff reiterated that the Catholic Church was committed to reconciliation with the Jews.

"Today I have the opportunity to repeat that the Catholic church is irrevocably committed to the path chosen at Second Vatican Council for a genuine and lasting reconciliation between Christians and Jews," he said at a meeting with Israel's two chief rabbis.

"As the declaration Nostra Aetate makes clear, the Church continues to value the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews and desires an ever deeper mutual understanding and respect through biblical and ideological studies as well as fraternal dialogues." Nostra Aetate, passed by the Second Vatican Council in 1965 under Pope Paul VI, proclaimed that the Jewish people as a whole could not be held responsible for the death of Jesus Christ, in a dramatic reversal of views held for hundreds of years.

The pope later told an assembly of Catholic bishops that the Christian presence in the Holy Land is "of vital importance for the good of society as a whole." "I express with affection my personal closeness in this situation of human insecurity, daily suffering, fear and hope (in) which you are living." Benedict was later Tuesday to celebrate mass in Jerusalem's Valley of Kidron, between the Mount of Olives and the walls of the Old City.

On Monday, the pontiff prayed at a Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, where he said the suffering of Holocaust victims should never be forgotten, denied or belittled and called the Nazi murder of six million Jews a "horrific tragedy." The Yad Vashem visit and his remarks were seen as key to repairing Israel-Vatican ties which have been strained over his backing for the beatification of controversial Nazi-era Pope Pius XII and lifting the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop.