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Pope honors Holocaust survivors in Israel

JERUSALEM--Pope Francis honored Jews killed in the Holocaust and other attacks and kissed the hands of Holocaust survivors as he capped his three-day Mideast trip with poignant stops Monday at some of the holiest and most haunting sites for Jews.

At Israel's request, Francis deviated from his whirlwind itinerary to pray at Jerusalem's Victims of Acts of Terror Memorial, giving the Jewish state his full attention a day after voicing strong support for the Palestinian cause.

Visiting the memorial dedicated to victims of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem, Francis prayed before a crypt with ashes of victims and laid a wreath of yellow and white flowers in the “Hall of Remembrance.”

And then one by one, he kissed the hands of a half-dozen Holocaust survivors in a sign of humility and honor as he heard their stories and of loved ones killed by the Nazis during World War II.

“Never again, Lord, never again!” Francis said. “Here we are, Lord, shamed by what man — created in your own image and likeness — was capable of doing.”

He repeated that phrase writing in the memorial's guest book, adding: “With shame for the fact that man made himself the owner of evil; with shame that man made himself into God and sacrificed his brothers. Never again!! Never again!! Francis. 5.26.2014.”

Joseph Gottdenker, born in Poland in 1942, said he briefly told the pope how he was saved as a boy by Catholics who hid him during the Holocaust. Gottdenker, who now lives in Canada, said he was more emotional than he expected to be when he met the pope.

“The Catholic people who saved me and risked the lives of their whole families to save me, they are looking down today and proud to see me meet the leader of their faith,” Gottdenker said after the ceremony.

Touching the Walls

A day earlier, upon his arrival in Israel after visiting the West Bank, Francis clearly condemned the slaughter of six million Jews during the Holocaust, making up for what many Jews felt was a tepid speech from Pope Benedict XVI during his 2009 visit to Yad Vashem.

Earlier on Monday, Francis prayed at Jerusalem's Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray, and left a note with the text of the “Our Father” prayer written in his native Spanish in one of the cracks between the stones.

In the shadow of the wall, Francis embraced his good friend, Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka, and a leader of Argentina's Muslim community, Omar Abboud, both of whom joined his official delegation for the trip in a sign of interfaith friendship.

Francis' gesture at the wall and at the terrorism memorial — head bowed in prayer, right hand touching the stone — was the same he used a day earlier when he made an impromptu stop at the Israeli separation barrier surrounding the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Israel says the massive concrete barrier is necessary for its security, while the Palestinians say it has engulfed the West Bank land and suffocated the biblical town.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained to Francis Israel's rationale for building the wall while they were at the terrorism memorial, his office said. Netanyahu asked Francis to add the memorial in at the last minute, and showed him the section dedicated to the victims of the 1994 bombing of a Jewish association in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people.

The Argentinian-born Francis was an auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires at the time of the attack and later became archbishop.

“When incitement and terror against Israel stops, there won't be the need for the security fence, which has saved thousands of lives,” Netanyahu told the pope during a meeting at the Vatican's Notre Dame visitor center.

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3. Pope Francis prays in front of the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, in Jerusalem's Old City, Monday. (AP)

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