JERUSALEM – Pope Benedict XVI took his message of peace to the most contentious site in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Tuesday, urging both sides to engage in "a sincere dialogue aimed at building a world of justice and peace."
On the second day of his Holy Land tour, the pope visited the Dome of the Rock, where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven, and the adjacent Western Wall, the last remnant of the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.
Competing claims to the hilltop compound — revered by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and Jews as the Temple Mount — have sparked violence in the past. Resolving the dispute has been the most intractable issue during more than 15 years of on-and-off Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
"In a world sadly torn by divisions, this sacred place serves as a stimulus, and also challenges men and women of goodwill to work to overcome misunderstandings and conflicts of the past and set out on the path of a sincere dialogue aimed at building a world of justice and peace for coming generations," the pope said during a meeting with the top Islamic cleric in Jerusalem, Mohammed Hussein.
Before meeting with Hussein, Benedict visited the mosque at the Dome of the Rock, the most sacred Muslim shrine in Jerusalem and part of the compound that is Islam's third-holiest site. He removed his red shoes before entering as a sign of respect, and a priest helped him slip them back on as he left.
Following tradition, Benedict inserted a note between the ancient crevices of the Western Wall, the last remnant of the second of two biblical temples and Judaism's holiest shrine. The written blessing asked "the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" to "hear the cry of the afflicted, the fearful, the bereft; send your peace upon this Holy Land, upon the Middle East, upon the entire human family."
At one point, Palestinian activists released two groups of red, green and black balloons over the Old City, representing the colors of the Palestinian flag. One cluster held a Palestinian flag, the other the yellow and white Vatican flag. The pope was inside meeting the cleric and did not see the colorful display.
Security was extremely tight during the pope's visit. Two police snipers were positioned in at least one minaret on the compound's perimeter, and three security blimps and a police helicopter hovered overhead. The Western Wall's plaza was emptied of civilians.
Jewish dignitaries greeted the pontiff, and presented him with a sculpture and a book. Israel TV said the book was titled, "Touching the Stones of our Heritage." As he placed his note in the wall, a popular custom among visitors to the site, Benedict was flanked by the wall's chief rabbi and two Catholic clergymen.
The pope is scheduled to meet Israel's two chief rabbis later Tuesday and celebrate Mass with thousands of followers in the Kidron Valley, one of Jerusalem's most sacred locations located just outside of the Old City.