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MID: Pope in Israel insists Holocaust never be forgotten

By Joseph Krauss
12 May 2009 2:09 AM

JERUSALEM, May 11 AFP - Pope Benedict XVI prayed at a Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem on Monday, denounced anti-Semitism and appealed for Middle East peace based on a two-state deal, on his first Holy Land tour.

"May the names of these victims never perish," the German pope said at a sombre ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. "May their suffering never be denied, belittled or forgotten."

The pontiff 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.

Upon arrival from Jordan at the start of a five-day trip that will also take him to the occupied West Bank, Pope Benedict spoke out against anti-Semitism.

"Sadly, anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head in many parts of the world," he said. "This is totally unacceptable. Every effort must be made to combat anti-Semitism wherever it is found."

At Yad Vashem, Benedict stayed away from an area where a caption under a photo of Pius XII says the war-time pope failed to protest against the Holocaust -- a stance that has angered the Vatican which disputes the claim.

Benedict himself has stirred unease in Israel, in part because of his past in the Hitler Youth, which he said he was forced to join.

"At the beginning he made mistakes," said Holocaust survivor Ruth Bondi, who attended the Yad Vashem ceremony. But she said that the pope in Jordan had "said the right things, and I hope he will go on saying them now."

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 recognised borders," he said.

Israel's hawkish new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who visited Egypt on Monday on his first foreign trip since taking office in March, has so far failed to publicly support Palestinian statehood.

The pope stressed that with "trust, nurtured in justice and integrity," people can recognise each other as equals.

"In this way does not society itself become the 'fruitful field' marked, not by blocks or obstructions, but by cohesion and vibrancy?" said Benedict who on Wednesday will visit Palestinian refugees in the West Bank city of Bethlehem just a stone's throw from Israel's separation barrier.

Israeli President Shimon Peres told the pope he prayed for the "walls of hostility" to fall and "hatreds of the past" to disappear.

"This year, the year of your visit here, may reveal an opportunity for us and our neighbours, to attain peace," Peres told Benedict at the presidential palace in Jerusalem.

The pontiff also met with the parents of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held prisoner in Gaza since Palestinian militants seized him in a June 2006 raid.

The pope was presented with several gifts, including a nano Bible engraved on a chip the size of a grain of sand, a hybrid strain of wheat named after him and fruit from the Holy Land.

Benedict will follow in the footsteps of Jesus and also visit Jewish and Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, Israel and the West Bank.

But the German-born pontiff is not expected to receive the warmth that greeted his predecessor John Paul II on his landmark Holy Land tour in 2000, a papal first since Israel and the Vatican established diplomatic ties in 1993.

Four cabinet ministers of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish party Shas boycotted a reception for the pope at the presidential residence "because of the pope's past in the Hitler Youth," a party spokesman told AFP.

Benedict's trip is a mainly pastoral visit aimed at encouraging the dwindling Christian population to stay in the Holy Land, as well as promoting peace.

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 in December-January.