Pope Francis on Monday entered the Dome of the Rock, the iconic shrine located at the third-holiest spot in Islam, on the third and final day of visit to the Holy Land.
Francis’ visit came during the Muslim holiday of Isra and Mi’raj, which marks the ascending of Prophet Mohammad from earth to heaven.
Francis took off his shoes to step into the gold-topped dome, according to the Associated Press. The dome enshrines the rock where Muslims believe the Prophet ascended to heaven.
The mosque complex, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount, is at the heart of the territorial and religious disputes between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
Francis was meeting with the grand mufti of Jerusalem before going to pray at the Western Wall, the only remains of the biblical Second Temple and the holiest place where Jews can pray.
Praying in Bethleham
On Sunday, Pope Francis made a surprise stop at the wall Palestinians abhor as a symbol of Israeli oppression, and later invited presidents from both sides of the divide to the Vatican to pray for peace.
In an image likely to become one of the most emblematic of his trip to the holy land, Francis rested his forehead against the concrete structure that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem, and prayed silently as a child holding a Palestinian flag looked on.
He stood at a spot where someone had sprayed in red paint "Free Palestine". Above his head was graffiti in broken English reading: "Bethlehem look like Warsaw Ghetto", comparing the Palestinians' plight with that of the Jews under the Nazis.
Francis invited the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to come to the Vatican to pray for an end to the enduring conflict, just a month after the collapse of U.S.-backed peace talks.
"In this, the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, I wish to invite you, President Mahmoud Abbas, together with President Shimon Peres, to join me in heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace," the Pope said at an open-air Mass in Bethlehem.
Peres and Abbas both accepted the invitation, their respective staff said. Palestinian official Hana Amira said the encounter would take place on June 6, just under two months before the veteran Israeli leader leaves office.
From Bethlehem, where the Pope also visited a Palestinian refugee camp, he flew by helicopter to Tel Aviv airport where he was welcomed by Peres and Netanyahu, before flying back over the Judean hills to Jerusalem.
In a speech at the ceremony, Francis invoked "the right of the State of Israel to exist and to flourish in peace and security within internationally recognized boundaries."
At the same time, he said there must be "recognition of the right of the Palestinian people to a sovereign homeland and their right to live with dignity and with freedom of movement."
Plea for Syria
Francis called for urgent steps to end Syria's three-year-old civil war as he arrived in neighboring Jordan on Saturday, when he started his Middle East trip.
Addressing Jordan's King Abdullah, Francis praised the Western-backed kingdom for its efforts to "to seek lasting peace for the entire region.”
"This great goal urgently requires that a peaceful solution be found to the crisis in Syria, as well as a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," he said, departing from his prepared text to describe the king as "an artisan for peace."
(With AP, AFP and Reuters)