For the first official stop on his itinerary, Pope Benedict XVI called on President Shimon Peres in the official Presidential Residence in Jerusalem on Monday afternoon. The ceremonies included a choral presentation, and a ritual planting of an olive tree by the president and the pope.  (Israel News Photo: Avi Ohayon / GPO)

President Peres greeted the Pope warmly, expressing happiness “that you are the pope at this important time.” Peres also said he was “very, very moved by your remarks at the airport. I want to thank you from the depth of my heart.”

The Pope responded, “I’m very happy to be here in Israel and to be so cordially welcomed, and to receive these gifts… We are very close to the Jewish Nation; your faith is our faith.”

Symbolic Gifts - Menorah, and Bible
Peres gave him two gifts: a nano-Bible – the entire 24 books of the Bible, from Genesis to Chronicles, written on a chip no bigger than a grain of sand - and a painting of a Menorah (candelabrum). The gift of a Menorah is symbolic both in that it is a symbol of the State of Israel, and in that the original Menorah from the Second Holy Temple is believed by many to be hidden in Vatican crypts, following the Roman sacking of the Temple some 1,930 years ago.

Peres then sat down with the Pope, and proceeded to refer to the agreement that Israeli and Vatican representatives have been attempting to negotiate for more than a decade. The talks revolve around Church demands for an exemption from Israeli property taxes, as well as other property demands. These include the outright transfer of six properties around the country to Church ownership, and a measure of control over the Last Supper Room above King David’s Tomb on Mount Zion, Jerusalem.

Peres said, “As you know, we tried to conclude as much as we could before your visit—“ At this point, the cameras and microphones were cut off, and the conversation continued away from the public eye.

Many Israeli groups are suspicious of the papal visit because of this very issue. Peres himself has been involved in these talks for many years; just last week he was reported as having pressured Interior Minister Eli Yishai to agree to sign away the six properties.

In his official address at the ceremony, Peres said, “The State of Israel greets you today most warmly, and welcomes you with an open heart… It is with deep appreciation that we welcome you. We are attentive to your message… We see in you a promoter of peace, a great spiritual leader, a potent bearer of the message of peace to this land and to all others.”

With what some view as his trademark optimism, and what others see as myopia, the president said, “The peoples of our region have tired of wars. We shall leave the divisions to history, and the new history we shall write in letters of faith and peace.”

“Spiritual leaders can pave the way for political leaders,” Peres said. “They can clear the mine-fields that obstruct the road to peace. The spiritual leaders should reduce animosity, so that political leaders do not resort to destructive means.”

The pope also met at the presidential residence with Noam and Aviva Shalit, the parents of kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, who was abducted by Hamas terrorists during a raid on a base near the Kerem Shalom Crossing with Gaza in June 2006. Shalit remains in captivity in Gaza, his condition and whereabouts unknown.

 Israel News Photo: Avi Ohayon / GPO

Using the "R" Word
Turning to Jewish-Catholic relations, Peres said, “Ties of reconciliation and understanding are now being woven between the Holy See and the Jewish people. We cherish this process and your leadership.” According to a leading expert on Catholic-Jewish relations, Prof. Yitzchak Minerbi, the word ‘reconciliation’ is often used by the Church in reference to the Church’s desire to convert and absorb the Jewish People.

Famous for making catchy comparisons, Peres said, “All of us - Jews, Christians, Muslims, all people of faith - recognize that, today’s challenge is not the separation of religion and state, but the uncompromising separation of religion from violence.”

“We welcome you in peace,” Peres concluded. “With your departure, may the legacy of peace prevail. May your visit bring peace.”  

(Israel News Photo: Avi Ohayon / GPO)

The Pope responded by speaking of the importance of unity among men, and said, “I wish to assure you that my pilgrimage to here is one of prayer for the Middle East and all humanity. I pray for this daily… Peace is above all a Divine gift...”

The Pope left from there for Yad Vashem, where his non-apologetic speech drew Israeli disappointment. From Yad Vashem, the Catholic leader departed for his last official stop of the day, an interfaith meeting at Notre Dame Guest House just outside the New Gate of the Old City, near Jaffa Road.                   

Click for complete coverage of the Pope Israel trip.