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Pope visits Muslim, Jewish sites on last day of Middle East trip

Pope Francis has visited the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and spoken to survivors of the Holocaust on the last day of his Middle East tour
The Pope will end his first visit to the Middle East on Monday by visiting Muslim and Jewish sites (AFP)

Pope Francis called for Christians, Jews and Muslims to work together for peace as he toured holy sites in Jerusalem on Monday, the final day of his Middle East pilgrimage.

On an early-morning tour of key sacred places in the walled Old City, the 77-year-old pontiff first visited Al-Aqsa mosque compound, then prayed at the Western Wall which lies just beneath it.

The pontiff was rounding off a whirlwind trip which saw him issue a unique invitation to the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to pray with him at the Vatican to end their "increasingly unacceptable" conflict, as well as snatching a personal prayer moment at Israel's separation barrier.

Francis had promised the three-day pilgrimage, which began on Saturday in Jordan, would steer clear of political issues.

But he ad-libbed from his scripted speech to condemn anti-Semitism, religious intolerance and those behind conflicts in the Middle East.

"May we work together for justice and peace," Francis said after being shown around the Al-Aqsa compound, which is also considered sacred by Jews because it was the site where their two famed Jerusalem temples once stood.

Entering the exquisite blue-tiled Dome of the Rock with its landmark golden cupola, used as a place of worship for women only, the pope first removed his shoes before walking down to visit the smaller, silver-domed Al-Aqsa mosque.

Francis the moved to the Western Wall, placing his right hand on the ancient stones and bowing his head in prayer for a few minutes before placing a note in the wall, then sharing an emotional embrace with two close Jewish and Muslim friends travelling with him.

A controversial mass

Later in the morning, he visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum where he spoke with survivors, and became the first pope ever to lay flowers on the grave of Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. Speaking at a solemn ceremony at the Hall of Remembrance he spoke of “the boundless tragedy of the Holocaust” describing it as an “unfathomable abyss”.

He also made an impromptu stop at a memorial for Israeli civilians killed in militant attacks, at the personal request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to Israeli army radio.

The stop came after four people were killed on Saturday, including two Israelis, when a gunman opened fire on the Jewish Museum in Brussels, prompting the pope to say he was “profoundly saddened” as he landed in Israel on Sunday.

At the end of the day on Monday, he will celebrate mass at the site known as the Cenacle, or Upper Room, bringing into sharp focus a decades-long debate over prayer rites at the site where Christians believe Jesus had his Last Supper.

The site on Mount Zion, is located in a two-storey building also considered holy to Muslims and Jews, who regard it as the place where the biblical figure David was buried.

Diplomatic dance

In the wake of the latest breakdown in US-led peace talks, Francis called on leaders to show "courage" to achieve peace based on a two-state solution, saying "building peace is difficult, but living without peace is a constant torment."

A senior Palestinian official confirmed Abbas had accepted and would visit the Vatican on June 6, while Peres's spokesman said only that the invitation was welcomed.

In a boost for relations between bickering Christians, Francis on Sunday also joined Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I in an historic joint prayer for unity between Rome and Constantinople.

The pair met, embraced and kissed at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre inside the Old City to mark the historic meeting 50 years ago between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras - the first easing of tensions between the churches since the Great Schism of the 11th century.

Francis has said the main reason for his Middle East visit was the meeting with Bartholomew I, and "to pray for peace in that land, which has suffered so much."