By Philip Pullella
Monday, May 11, 2009 11:17 AM
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Pope Benedict remembered the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis during his trip to Israel on Monday and strove to heal the wounds inflicted by his lifting of the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop.
"Tragically, the Jewish people have experienced the terrible circumstances of ideologies that deny the fundamental dignity of every human person," he said at Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion airport, going on to challenge Israel's right-leaning government by calling for a Palestinian homeland.
"I will have the opportunity to honor the memory of the 6 million Jewish victims of the Shoah," the German-born pope said, using the Hebrew term for the Holocaust, "and to pray that humanity will never again witness a crime of such magnitude."
He later flew by Israeli military helicopter to Jerusalem, where he said at President Shimon Peres's official residence that his pilgrimage was one of "prayer for the precious gift of unity and peace for the Middle East and all of humanity."
Welcoming the pontiff, Peres said: "Spiritual leaders can pave the way for political leaders. They can clear the minefields that obstruct the road to peace."
"Ties of reconciliation and understanding are now being woven between the Holy See and the Jewish people," Peres added. "Our door is open to similar efforts with the Muslim world."
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 Briton Richard Williamson who denied 6 million Jews were killed.
The Vatican says it had not known enough about Williamson's past and the church and Jewish religious leaders now hope the issue can be definitively closed with a visit later in the day by the pontiff to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel's memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.
Before Williamson and the other bishops can be fully readmitted into the Church, the Vatican said, they must accept the teachings of the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council that urged respect for other religions.
Pope Benedict, who flew into Israel from Jordan, criticized anti-Semitism, which he said "continues to rear its ugly head" in many parts of the world.
"Every effort must be made to combat anti-Semitism wherever it is found, and to promote respect and esteem for the members of every people, tribe, language and nation across the globe," he said at the airport.
Pope Benedict's visit has stirred little enthusiasm among Israelis. Born Joseph Ratzinger in Bavaria in 1927, he was a member of the Hitler Youth when enrolment was compulsory, according to his autobiography.
His biographers say he was never a member of the Nazi party and his family opposed Adolf Hitler's regime.
In remarks at the airport, Peres said: "We see in your visit here to the Holy Land as an important spiritual mission of the highest order, a mission of peace, a mission of planting seeds for tolerance and uprooting of the weeds of fanaticism."
Reiterating Vatican policy, the pope called for "just resolution" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "so that both peoples may live in peace in a homeland of their own, within secure and internationally recognized borders."
Since being sworn in as Israel's prime minister on March 31, Benjamin Netanyahu has not specifically discussed establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, a U.S. and Arab priority.
The pope's remarks on the subject will echo around the region, particularly when he visits a Palestinian refugee camp in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank on Wednesday. In Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, he will meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
During the pope's visit to Jordan, he stressed his desire for warm relations between Christians and Muslims and tried to wipe away residual bitterness over a 2006 lecture he made which Muslims saw as offensive.
During the five-day trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, the pope will visit sites connected to the life of Jesus and hold talks with Israeli officials, Palestinian leaders and Jewish and Islamic religious leaders.
Israeli police said they would be carrying out their largest security operation in nearly a decade, since the visit by Pope John Paul II in 2000.
(Writing by Jeffrey Heller and Philip Pullella, editing by Alastair Macdonald and Samia Nakhoul)