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Last Updated: Saturday, 2 April, 2005, 21:38 GMT 22:38 UK
Pope's historic Holy Land odyssey
By Emily Buchanan
World Affairs Correspondent, BBC News

For Pope John Paul II, his journey to the Holy Land in 2000 was the culmination of a dream.

The Pope praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem
The Pope praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem
It was the first time a pope had made an official visit to the birthplace of Christianity. Pope Paul VI's trip in 1964 did not have official status.

He was to retrace the steps of Jesus, travelling at the same time through the minefield of Middle East politics.

After being welcomed in Tel Aviv by Israel's then Prime Minister Ehud Barak he flew by helicopter the next day to the Palestinian territories - to Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

Pope's sympathy

Palestinians were delighted that he kissed their soil, a sign for them that he recognised their nationhood.

He then prayed over the silver star in the pavement that many believe marks the spot where Jesus Christ was born.

At a packed mass in Manger Square, Yasser Arafat and Muslims arrived to pay their respects.

Pope John Paul II with Yasser Arafat in 2000
Pope John Paul II with Yasser Arafat in 2000
Later, Mr Arafat accompanied the Pope to a refugee camp, again confirming the Pope's sympathy for the Palestinian cause.

The aim of the Pope's visit was to encourage reconciliation between the faiths, and so provide an example for the rest of the world.

So after showing sympathy to Muslim Palestinians, he allayed Jewish anxiety by travelling on to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, to express the Church's sadness at the persecution and anti-Semitism directed at Jews by Christians.

Emotional reunion

In a moment charged with emotion, a Jewish woman greeted the Pope.

Some 55 years earlier, as a young man, he had helped to rescue her after she had been released nearly dead from exhaustion from a Nazi death camp.

She had remembered his name and had now come to Yad Vashem to thank him.

The Pope paying his respects at the Yad Vashem memorial
The Pope paying his respects at the Yad Vashem memorial
The frail Pope laid his hand gently on her arm as tears streamed down her face.

Although Jews were touched by his visit, some wanted him to go further and apologise for the Church's failure during the war to denounce the murder of Jews.

The rest of the Pope's visit focused on celebrating the faith at the roots of Christianity.

Largest crowd

In a youth mass in Galilee, 2000 years after Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount, he gave his own version to 100,000 pilgrims.

"Blessed are you who seem to be losers, because you are the true winners," he said.

It was the largest peace-time crowd ever gathered there.

The Pope gave another mass in Nazareth at the place where the Angel Gabriel is believed to have told Mary she would give birth to the Messiah.

It was here also that Muslim riots had broken out when Christians had objected to a mosque being built nearby.

The Pope ended his trip back in Jerusalem celebrating mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre shortly after a visit to the Western Wall of the Temple, Judaism's most holy shrine.

Although this historic trip may not have achieved a concrete improvement in the Middle East peace process, the Pope did manage to persuade everyone that he was on their side.

And in so doing, he endeared himself to millions of people from different faiths.


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Pope visits the Wailing Wall in 2000



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