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Pope Francis Wraps Up 3-Day Trip To Middle East


And we're also following this news. Pope Francis is in Jerusalem. He has stopped at the holiest Jewish and Muslim sites there, all part of a visit to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. Now, the pope has criticized the unresolved conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and he's also invited leaders from both sides to visit the Vatican.

He has also spent time at a Holocaust memorial where he brought up this past weekend's shooting that left several people dead at a Jewish museum in Brussels, Belgium. We're going to talk about all this with NPR's Emily Harris who's on the line from Jerusalem. And, Emily, what's the pope been doing today?

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: The pope's been pretty busy today. It's a packed trip over all. It started off with a focus on interfaith relations. As you mentioned, he visited the Dome of the Rock - holy to Muslims. He prayed at the Western Wall, which is the most sacred site in Judaism. And he's spending a lot of today paying attention specifically to what's important to Israel.

He met Holocaust survivors. He heard their stories and kissed their hands. He met with the chief rabbis of Jerusalem. He honored the founder of Zionism, which is a controversial move from the Palestinian perspective, who see the drive for a Jewish homeland as what led to their situation today. And he also made an unscheduled stop at a memorial to Israeli victims of terrorist attacks. He's meeting Israeli officials - the prime minister and the president - privately today, and he'll spend the afternoon with Christian clergy of different sects.

INSKEEP: Well, now, that's an interesting point because we think about the divide between Christians and Jews or Muslims, but here he's focusing on the divide between different sects of Christians.

HARRIS: That's right, and from the Vatican's perspective, this is a real highlight of the trip. Yesterday Pope Francis met with the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church, and they issued a statement of the work that they're doing - what they called a new and necessary step in trying to mend the thousand-year-old split between the Eastern Christian - or the Orthodox - and the Western Christian churches. You know, you think about a thousand-year-old split, and you think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it's a different timeline entirely. Although, of course the past plays a great role - the long-reaching past plays a great role in the Palestinian and Israeli conflict as well.

But on this issue of Christian unity, the pope also, last night, held a very moving prayer service in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is the place that Christians believe traditionally that Christ was killed and buried - the church built on that site. And it was held with all six Christian sects that have a place in that church. Normally they pray there, but they pray separately. And so this was very symbolic, and a Vatican spokesperson said it was a very moving time for Pope Francis.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that more recent divide, as you said, the divide between Israelis and Palestinians. The pope did a provocative thing over the weekend - went to the concrete separation wall - one of the walls that separates Israeli areas from Palestinian areas. It surrounds much of Bethlehem, in fact, and other parts of the West Bank. How do Palestinians react to this? How did Israelis react to this?

HARRIS: This was probably the most iconic image, perhaps, that came out of yesterday's visit to Bethlehem which, as you said, was a Palestinian city in the West Bank. Palestinians were thrilled that he got out of his little popemobile and stopped at the wall and put his head against it and prayed.

Israel, you might remember, started building this barrier during a time of high violence, including suicide bombings, that were carried out in Israel by people who lived in the West Bank. And as you mentioned, it goes in and around the West Bank. It's a wall in some parts. Most of the time it's a high-tech fence.

But for Palestinians, they see this as a very potent symbol of Israel taking Palestinian land and limits on Palestinian freedom of travel. On the Israeli side, there are some reports in the press today that the pope's gesture lacked the context of why Israel says it built the barrier in the first place. But there are debates even within Israel about how much role - how much of a role this barrier played in bringing violence down over the past 10, 12 years. And overall the pope's stop there was interpreted as one of several overt boosts that Pope Francis gave to the Palestinian hopes for a peace deal that would create a state of their own.

INSKEEP: OK, just a few seconds here, but the pope invited leaders from both sides to the Vatican. Does this mean that he becomes a player in the peace talks - or the prospective peace talks, I guess we should say - since they've been suspended?

HARRIS: Not necessarily. He invited president - Israeli president, Shimon Peres - who's not a political player in the peace talks. That's the prime minister's role...


HARRIS: ...And Peres is also about to retire as well as Palestinian authority president, Mahmoud Abbas. He was the political leader involved in the peace talks. But it does seem to indicate that the pope wants to do something to push for peace here in addition to this visit.

INSKEEP: Emily, thanks very much.

HARRIS: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Emily Harris. She is in Jerusalem, which Pope Francis has been visiting today. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Harris
International Correspondent Emily Harris is based in Jerusalem as part of NPR's Mideast team. Her post covers news related to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She began this role in March of 2013.
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