JERUSALEM: Pope Francis called on Monday for Christians, Jews and Muslims to “work together” for justice and peace on a visit to Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound, the third holiest site in Islam.
“May we work together for justice and peace,” he said at the sprawling plaza, which is also considered sacred by Jews because it was the site where their two Jewish Temples once stood.
As he toured the compound accompanied by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Hussein, he was surrounded by a large crowd of Catholic and Muslim officials, as Vatican security guards and Israeli police looked on.
Entering the exquisite blue-tiled Dome of the Rock with its landmark golden cupola, which is used as a place of worship for women only, the pope first removed his shoes.
He then walked down towards the smaller, silver-domed Al-Aqsa mosque—Arabic for the “furthest mosque”—which is considered the third holiest shrine within Islam because it is the site where Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven.
Located at the southeastern edge of the Old City, the compound is known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif or the Noble Sanctuary, and to Jews as the Temple Mount.
For Jews, it is the holiest site in Judaism but they are forbidden by law to pray there, praying instead at the adjacent Western Wall, the last remnant of the retaining wall that supported the second Temple complex.
It is currently the holiest site at which Jews can pray and was also to be visited by the pope immediately after his tour of Al-Aqsa.
Meeting with Orthodox Church head
Earlier in the day, Pope Francis joined Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I in an historic joint prayer for the Christian unity at Christianity’s holiest site in Jerusalem on Sunday.
They met at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre inside the walled Old City after signing a landmark pledge to work together to further unity between the eastern and western branches of Christianity, estranged for a millennium.
The meeting has been billed as the main reason for the pope’s three-day trip to the Middle East, which ends on Monday.
It commemorates the historic rapprochement between both branches of the Christian church 50 years ago, when Pope Paul VI met and embraced Patriarch Athenagoras—the first easing of tensions between the Churches since the Great Schism in the 11th century.
Both leaders knelt side by side in prayer on the rough Stone of the Anointing, where the body of Jesus was laid before burial, removing their headgear as they did so.
Both had to be helped to their feet by aides at the end of the prayer. The pope is 77, Bartholomew, one of the Orthodox Chuch’s most revered figures, 74.
A choir sang a Greek chant as they slowly walked into a joint service in the dimly-lit church, packed with religious figures and dignitaries, and later burst into a joyous rendition of Hallelujah.
Earlier, the two men signed a joint pledge to pursue common dialogue, which reaffirmed values common to the Catholic and Orthodox churches.
“Our fraternal encounter today is a new and necessary step on the journey towards the unity . . . of communion in legitimate diversity,” says the declaration which was signed in the presence of representatives of 13 Catholic and Orthodox churches in Jerusalem.
The logo for the pope’s journey is a picture of St. Peter and St. Andrew—symbolizing the churches of the east and west— embracing in a boat with a mast in the shape of a cross.
The Great Schism in 1054 split Rome and Constantinople, seat of Orthodoxy.
According to Christian tradition, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where the joint service was held, was built on the site of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus.