Pope Benedict XVI ended his pilgrimage to the Holy Land on Friday with his strongest call yet for the creation of a Palestinian state and telling the faithful at the site of Jesus' crucifixion that peace is possible.
"Let it be universally recognized that the state of Israel has the right to exist, and to enjoy peace and security within internationally agreed borders," the pope said on the tarmac of Tel Aviv's airport before boarding the plane for Rome. "Let it be likewise acknowledged that the Palestinian people have a right to a sovereign independent homeland."
"Let the two-state solution become a reality, not remain a dream," Benedict said.
Earlier on the fifth and final day of his visit, the pontiff walked into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, accompanied by a traditional escort of men in black robes and red fezzes rhythmically banging staffs on the ground to announce his approach.
Benedict knelt down and kissed the rectangular stone on which Jesus' body is believed to have been placed after the crucifixion. Then he entered the structure inside the church marking the site of Jesus' tomb and knelt inside alone for several minutes, hands clasped, as priests chanted nearby.
Afterward, he told those gathered in the church not to lose hope — a central theme during a visit in which he addressed the Holocaust, Israeli-Palestinian politics and the region's shrinking number of Christians.
"The Gospel reassures us that God can make all things new, that history need not be repeated, that memories can be healed, that the bitter fruits of recrimination and hostility can be overcome, and that a future of justice, peace, prosperity and cooperation can arise for every man and woman, for the whole human family, and in a special way for the people who dwell in this land so dear to the heart of the Savior," he said.
With those "words of encouragement," he said, "I conclude my pilgrimage to the holy places of our redemption and rebirth in Christ."
Increased security measures
Thousands of soldiers and policemen were deployed Friday around Jerusalem's Old City for the pope's visit to the ancient church, which tradition holds marks the site of Jesus' crucifixion, burial and resurrection.
"This is where it all began, where good defeated evil, which is what the pope and all of us hope will happen in the Holy Land and across the world," said Hans Brouwers, a white-cloaked Catholic priest standing outside the church.
Benedict also met with the city's Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox patriarchs, part of the outreach effort toward Orthodox Christians that has been a keystone of his papacy.
The pope has reached out to both Jews and Muslims but some here are giving his five-day trip only mixed reviews. It was his first visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories as pontiff.
During his visit, he led 50,000 worshippers in a jubilant Mass outside of Nazareth, in an effort to rally his dwindling flock, whose numbers have been holding steady inside Israel's borders but dropping steeply in the West Bank and elsewhere in the Middle East. The number of Arab Christians in the Holy Land — an estimated 160,000 — has barely risen in six decades, even as the Muslim and Jewish populations have skyrocketed.
He also met Israeli and Palestinian leaders. "It was a trip in which the pope listened very much. He was also listened to, I think," Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said.
Benedict won appreciation from Palestinians for endorsing their call for an independent state. But some Israelis were disappointed with his treatment of the Holocaust, saying he could have gone further in a speech at the country's national Holocaust memorial.
The pope eloquently spoke of the suffering of Holocaust victims but did not follow the lead of his predecessor, John Paul II, in expressing remorse for the Church's historic persecution of Jews. Neither did he discuss what some see as the Church's passivity during the Nazi genocide or his own time as a member of the Hitler Youth.
Those perceived omissions led officials at the Yad Vashem memorial to take the exceptional step of openly criticizing the speech. They also noted he said Jews were "killed," rather than "murdered."
The pope's final speech before his departure might have been an attempt to address those concerns.
In it, he referred to Jews "brutally exterminated under a godless regime." He also referred to what he called a "tense relationship" in the past between Jews and the Catholic Church.
Addressing Israeli President Shimon Peres, he also explicitly endorsed a "two-state solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and singled out Israel's West Bank separation barrier. "One of the saddest sights for me during my visit to these lands was the wall," he said.
Israel began building the barrier during a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings to keep assailants out of Israel. Palestinians see it as a land grab because its route is largely inside the West Bank.
Peres praised the pope and called his visit "a profound demonstration of the enduring dialogue between the Jewish people and the hundreds of millions of Christian believers throughout the world."
In Israel, many remember the excitement sparked by the charismatic John Paul when he arrived in 2000 for the first official visit here by a pope. Benedict's visit seemed to suffer in comparison.
"If history will ever bother paying attention to his inconsequential visit, it will merely be as a footnote to the end of Christian influence in the Middle East," columnist Anshel Pfeffer wrote Friday in the daily Haaretz.
But Ron Kronish, an Israeli rabbi involved in interfaith dialogue, said much of the criticism was unfair.
"I think overall, from the point of view of the state of Israel and the Holy See, the Vatican, this was a successful trip," he said.