Pope weighs in on controversial holy sites debate

Pope weighs in on controversial holy sites debate
Pope Francis waves upon his arrival at the West Bank town of Bethlehem.

JERUSALEM - Pope Francis on Monday called for people of all faiths to have access to often hotly-contested sacred sites in Jerusalem, on the final day of his whirlwind Middle East trip.

Francis, who has made interfaith dialogue a cornerstone of his papacy, said believers must be able to pray freely at sites currently contested by Jews, Muslims and Christians.

The pope was winding up a packed 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.

Francis made an early-morning tour of the holiest sites in Jerusalem's walled Old City, issuing a call for the three religions to "work together for justice and peace" as he was shown around the Al-Aqsa compound, the third holiest site in Islam which Jews also consider sacred.

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.

At the Western Wall, the holiest site at which Jews can pray, he left a note in between the ancient stones before sharing an emotional embrace with two close Jewish and Muslim friends travelling with him.

There, he was briefly heckled by a handful of ultra-Orthodox youngsters who watched his visit to the Western Wall from a distance and shouted "Tragedy, horrible!" in Yiddish.

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

But he ad-libbed from scripted speeches to condemn anti-Semitism and religious intolerance and made an impromptu stop at an Israeli memorial for victims of militant attacks.

The unscheduled gesture, which came as he visited the national cemetery on Mount Herzl, reportedly took place at the personal request of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

It comes a day after the 77-year-old Argentine made another surprise stop to briefly pray at Israel's West Bank security barrier in Bethlehem, in a gesture the Palestinians hailed as an "eloquent and clear message".

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