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Tuesday 23 September 2014

Pope honours victims of Holocaust

Published 26/05/2014 | 08:07

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Pope Francis prays in front of the Western Wall (AP)

Pope Francis has honoured Jews killed in the Holocaust as he capped his three-day Middle East trip with poignant stops at some of the holiest and most haunting sites for Jews.

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At Israel's request, Francis deviated from his whirlwind itinerary to pray at a memorial to victims of terrorism, giving the Jewish state his full attention a day after voicing strong support for the Palestinian cause.

Visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, Francis prayed before a crypt with ashes of victims and laid a wreath of yellow and white flowers in the Hall of Remembrance.

And then one by one, he kissed the hands of a half-dozen Holocaust survivors in a sign of humility and honour as he heard their stories and of loved ones killed by the Nazis during World War II.

"Never again, Lord, never again!" Francis said. "Here we are, Lord, shamed by what man - created in your own image and likeness - was capable of doing."

Joseph Gottdenker, born in Poland in 1942, said he briefly told the pope how he was saved as a boy by Catholics who hid him during the Holocaust. Mr Gottdenker, who now lives in Canada, said he was more emotional than he expected to be when he met the pope.

"The Catholic people who saved me and risked the lives of their whole families to save me, they are looking down today and proud to see me meet the leader of their faith," Mr Gottdenker said after the ceremony.

A day earlier, upon his arrival in Israel after visiting the West Bank, Francis clearly condemned the slaughter of six million Jews during the Holocaust, making up for what many Jews felt was a tepid speech from Pope Benedict XVI during his 2009 visit to Yad Vashem.

Earlier, Francis prayed at Jerusalem's Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray, and left a note with the text of the "Our Father" prayer written in his native Spanish in one of the cracks between the stones.

After praying at the wall, Francis then embraced his good friend, Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka, and a leader of Argentina's Muslim community, Omar Abboud, both of whom joined his official delegation for the trip in a sign of interfaith friendship.

His gesture at the wall and at the terrorism memorial - head bowed in prayer, right hand touching the stone - was the same he used a day earlier when he made an impromptu stop at the Israeli separation barrier surrounding the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

Israeli police said a prayer book was set on fire in an apparent arson attack at a Jerusalem church near a sensitive holy site where Francis celebrated mass.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said an eyewitness saw a man enter the Dormition Abbey and light candles before fleeing the scene. The suspect's identity or motive was not immediately known.

In the run-up to the pope's visit, there have been a number of hate attacks directed against Christian holy sites and properties.

Nikodemus Schnabel, the church spokesman, said a book of personal prayers was set on fire. A wooden bench and small crosses nearby also caught on fire, causing little damage.

He said the fire took place after Francis finished mass at a nearby holy site revered by Christians as where Jesus had his Last Supper, and by Jews as the tomb of the biblical King David.

Religious Jewish nationalists have protested in recent days because the Vatican is pressing for more access to the site.

Press Association

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