Pope Benedict XVI on Monday denounced anti-Semitism and appealed for Middle East peace based on a two-state solution on the latest leg of his Holy Land pilgrimage that will take him to Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories.
Security-obsessed Israel laid on stringent measures for the trip under "Operation White Robe", with tens of thousands of law enforcement officers deployed, entire sections of Jerusalem shut down and Israeli air space closed for the pope’s arrival.
The pope left Jordan after three days in which he stressed his desire for warm relations between Christians and Muslims and tried to wipe away residual bitterness over a 2006 lecture he made in which he quoted a mediaeval Christian emperor who criticized some teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhuman."
At the start of his high-security tour of Israel the pope told the Israeli public: "Sadly, anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head in many parts of the world."
"This is totally unacceptable. Every effort must be made to combat anti-Semitism wherever it is found," he said.
The pope hopes to repair Israel-Vatican relations 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 British bishop.
Benedict also appealed for Israelis and Palestinians to resolve their conflict that has caused decades of bloodshed.
"I plead with all those responsible to explore every possible avenue in the search for a just resolution of the outstanding difficulties so that both peoples may live in peace in a homeland of their own within secure and internationally recognized borders," he said.
Benedict, 82, made the 30-minute flight from Amman to Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport, where he was to be welcomed by President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But with Israel-Vatican relations strained, the German-born Benedict is not expected to receive the warmth that greeted his predecessor John Paul II on a landmark Holy Land visit nine years ago.
During his week in Israel and the Palestinian territories, he is expected to repeat his offer for the Catholic Church to do all it can to help the stalled peace process.
Between visits to sacred sites connected to the life of Jesus he will also hold talks with Israeli officials, Palestinian leaders and Jewish and Islamic religious leaders.
He will meet senior Israeli and Palestinian leaders, top Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious officials, and Palestinian refugees living in the shadow of Israel’s controversial separation barrier near the spot where Jesus is believed to have been born in Bethlehem.
His trip is a mainly pastoral visit aimed at encouraging the dwindling Christian population to stay in the Holy Land, as well as promoting peace and inter-faith dialogue in a conflict-ridden region sacred to the world’s three main monotheistic religions.
Christians and Jews "Inseparable"
The Palestinians hope to use his visit to highlight their plight, with the West Bank still under Israeli occupation and Gaza in ruins from Israel’s devastating war on the territory at the start of the year.
Speaking on Saturday on the slopes of the windswept Mount Nebo, where biblical tradition says God showed Moses the Promised Land, Benedict called for reconciliation between Christians and Jews, calling the bond between the Church and the Jewish people "inseparable."
Israel has pumped about $10 million (€7.5 million) into preparations for the visit, but the unbridled enthusiasm that greeted Pope John Paul II’s historic trip in 2000 — the first by a pontiff since Israel and the Vatican established diplomatic ties in 1993 — is missing this time around.
On Monday afternoon the pope visits Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.
In the 45 years since the Second Vatican Council repudiated the concept of collective Jewish guilt for Christ’s death, Catholic-Jewish relations have been haunted by the Holocaust and the question of what the church did, or failed to do, about it.
They went through one of their worst periods after the pope in January lifted the excommunication of four traditionalist bishops, including one who had denied the Holocaust.
The Vatican says it did not know enough about the bishop’s past and both sides now hope the issue can be definitively closed with the Yad Vashem visit.
Most Jewish leaders now consider the episode to have been put to rest but some want the pope to make another firm repudiation of Holocaust denial and stress that there is no room for anti-Semitism in the church.
Israeli police said they would be carrying out their largest security operation in nearly a decade, since the visit by Pope John Paul in 2000.
Some 30,000 police will be on duty. Everywhere he travels, the pope will have police helicopters tracking him from above.
(Alarabiya.net and Agencies)