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Pope, Patriarch Pray in Jerusalem, Sign Dialogue Pledge, Seek Unity

JERUSALEM —  Pope Francis and the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians prayed together inside the Jerusalem church that symbolizes their divisions, calling their historic meeting a step toward healing the centuries-old Catholic-Orthodox schism.

Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I embraced one another in the stone courtyard outside the 12th Century Church of the Holy Sepulcher and recited the “Our Father” prayer together once inside, an unprecedented moment of solemnity at the spot where Catholic and Orthodox believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.

The encounter, punctuated by haunting Greek and Latin chants, was full of symbolic meaning: The two men, both in their mid-70s, helped one another down the stone steps leading into the church, grasping one another’s forearms.

And after Bartholomew delivered his remarks, Francis bent down and kissed his hand in remarkable show of papal respect for a patriarch when some 500 years ago a patriarch was forced to kiss the feet of the pope.

The evening prayer service was the spiritual highlight of Francis’ three-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land and capped a momentous day in which the Israeli and Palestinian presidents accepted Francis’ invitation to join him at the Vatican next month to pray for peace.

Francis has said his primary reason for coming to the region was to mark the 50th anniversary of the meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople.

Their 1964 embrace ended 900 years of mutual excommunication and estrangement sparked by the Great Schism of 1054, which split Christianity.

Since that meeting, the two churches have grown closer in personal friendships and even theological dialogue, but core differences remain, including over the primacy of the pope.

Tellingly, Francis referred to Paul not as Pope but as “Bishop of Rome” — the other main title attributed to popes and the way Francis introduced himself to the world on the night he was elected pope in a clear gesture toward his Orthodox “brothers.”

Bartholomew, for his part, called for their meeting at Christ’s tomb to show how fear, religious fanaticism and hatred of people of other faiths and races can be overcome by love. “The message of the life-giving tomb is clear: love the other, the different other, the followers of other faiths and other confessions.”

The site of their meeting could not have been more significant: Perhaps no other piece of real estate on Earth symbolizes the divisions of Christianity than the Holy Sepulcher, where six Christian denominations practice their faith, yet occasionally come to blows in jealously guarding their turf and times of worship.

Given the centuries of tensions underlying the visit, the seating arrangements and procession order alone were an ecclesiastical and diplomatic feat of protocol. Francis, Bartholomew and the leaders of the three main communities that share the church — Greek-Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic — all sat on the same sized, gilded red velvet chairs facing the shrine encasing Jesus’ tomb.

Bartholomew was the first to enter the tomb, but Francis was the first to climb the steep stairs up to the site where tradition holds Christ was crucified. The Gospel was chanted in both Latin and Greek, to appeal to the linguistic traditions of both Catholic and Orthodox. The two men recited the “Our Father” together in the relatively neutral Italian.

They embraced each other on several occasions, drawing applause from the ecumenical crowd inside the cavernous church lit by twinkling lanterns. After arriving at the church piazza from separate entrances, they left in the same car to dine together.

Though the three major denominations adamantly stick to the status quo arrangement that governs separate worship at the church, none particularly enjoys the arrangement.

“We are grown-ups. We should be able to sit down and finalize the whole thing,” said the Rev. Samuel Aghoyan, the Armenian superior of the Holy Sepulcher.

“The amount of energy that’s required to maintain it is counterproductive,” said the Rev. Athanasius Macora, a Texas native and Franciscan monk who sits on an inter-church commission that negotiates disputes at the Holy Sepulcher.

“It’s very silly. We laugh about it,” said Anna Koulouris, a communications adviser with the Greek Orthodox church.

Pope Francis honored Jews killed in the Holocaust, kissing the hands of six survivors in an emotional ceremony at Israel’s national Holocaust memorial on May 26 as he capped a Mideast trip with poignant stops at some of the holiest and most haunting sites for Jews.

At Israel’s request, Francis deviated from his whirlwind itinerary to pray at Jerusalem’s Victims of Acts of Terror Memorial, giving the Jewish state his full attention a day after voicing strong support for the Palestinian cause. The memorial includes the names of hundreds of civilians killed in Palestinian and Arab attacks since 1851.

At the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, Francis prayed before a crypt with ashes of victims and laid a wreath of yellow and white flowers in the “Hall of Remembrance.”

Then one by one, he kissed the hands of a half-dozen Holocaust survivors in a sign of humility and honor as he heard their stories and of loved ones killed by the Nazis during World War II.

“Never again, Lord, never again!” Francis said. “Here we are, Lord, shamed by what man — created in your own image and likeness — was capable of doing.”

He repeated that phrase writing in the memorial’s guest book, adding: “With shame for the fact that man made himself the owner of evil; with shame that man made himself into God and sacrificed his brothers. Never again!! Never again!! Francis. 5.26.2014.”

Joseph Gottdenker, 72, said he briefly told the Pope how he was saved as a boy by Catholics who hid him during the Holocaust. Gottdenker, who now lives in Canada, said he was more emotional than he expected to be when he met the pope.

“The Catholic people who saved me and risked the lives of their whole families to save me, they are looking down today and proud to see me meet the leader of their faith,” Gottdenker said after the ceremony.

A day earlier, upon his arrival in Israel after visiting the West Bank, Francis clearly condemned the slaughter of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust, making up for what many Jews felt was a tepid speech from Pope Benedict XVI during his 2009 visit to Yad Vashem.

Earlier, Francis prayed at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray, and left a note with the text of the “Our Father” prayer written in his native Spanish in a crack between the stones.

In the shadow of the wall, Francis embraced his good friend, Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka, and a leader of Argentina’s Muslim community, Omar Abboud, both of whom joined his official delegation for the trip in a sign of interfaith friendship.

Francis’ gesture at the wall and at the terrorism memorial — head bowed in prayer, right hand touching the stone — was the same he used a day earlier when he made an impromptu stop at the Israeli separation barrier surrounding Bethlehem. Israel says the massive concrete barrier is necessary for its security, while the Palestinians say it has engulfed the West Bank land and suffocated the biblical town.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained to Francis Israel’s rationale for building the wall while they were at the terrorism memorial, his office said.

Netanyahu asked Francis to add the memorial to his itinerary at the last minute, and showed him the section dedicated to the victims of the 1994 bombing of a Jewish association in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people.

The Argentinian-born Francis was an auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires at the time of the attack and later became archbishop.

“I explained to the pope that constructing the fence (separation barrier) prevented many more victims of Palestinian terror, which continues today,” Netanyahu said.

Francis’ intensely busy trip has been marked by his surprise invitation to the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to come to the Vatican next month to pray for peace. Both men accepted.

Francis and the outgoing Israeli President Shimon Peres spoke about the initiative before planting an olive tree — a sign of peace — in the garden of Peres’ official residence.

Francis praised Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, for his efforts to solve the conflict. “You are known as a man of peace and a maker of peace, and I express my admiration and thankfulness for your attitude,” Francis said.

“We would be honored to offer such a prayer either in our home or yours, in accordance with your kind offer,” Peres said.

He said he believed Francis’ visit would contribute to revitalizing the peace process with the Palestinians, “based on two states living in peace, a Jewish state, Israel, and an Arab state, Palestine.”

Francis started the day by taking off his shoes to enter the Dome of the Rock, the iconic shrine located at the third-holiest spot in Islam. The gold-topped dome enshrines the rock where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.

The mosque complex, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount, is at the heart of the territorial and religious disputes between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Speaking to the grand mufti of Jerusalem and other Muslim authorities, Francis deviated from his prepared remarks to refer not just to his “dear friends” but “dear brothers.”

“May we respect and love one another as brothers and sisters!” he said. “May we learn to understand the suffering of others! May no one abuse the name of God through violence!”

Meeting with Israel’s chief rabbis, Francis called Jews the “older brothers” of Christians.

The pope appeared tired, but holding up well despite the breakneck, back-to-back schedule that took him from the Dome of the Rock to the Western Wall, to Mount Herzl, the Israeli national cemetery named for the father of modern Zionism, and Yad Vashem.

Meetings with the Israeli prime minister and local priests were also on the agenda, and finally, Mass in the Room of the Last Supper, where Catholics believe Jesus shared his final meal with his disciples before being crucified.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)

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