After a three-day visit to Jordan, Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Israel on Monday. Accompanied by an entourage of 40 Vatican staff members and 70 reporters, he landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport at 11:00 local time in a special Royal Jordanian plane. President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli dignitaries welcomed the Pope at the airport.
An Israel Defense Forces' guard of honor greeted the Pope as he walked onto the tarmac, with the band playing the Israeli national anthem – Hatikva, Jerusalem of Gold and the Vatican's anthem too.
In his welcome address, delivered in English with a few words in Hebrew and Latin, President Shimon Peres spoke of the importance of the Pope’s visit to the region’s search for peace: “I see your visit here, to the Holy Land, as an important spiritual mission of the highest order – a mission of peace. A mission of planting the seeds of tolerance and uprooting the weeds of fanaticism.”
Stressing the similarities between peoples, Peres noted that “Israel safeguards the absolute freedom of religious practice and allows free access to all the holy sites. We are always happy to welcome pilgrims to the Holy Land from all over the world.”
He concluded, “Your visit here brings a blessed understanding between religions and spreads peace near and far. Both historic and modern Israel welcome your arrival as paving the great road to peace from city to city."
Excerpts from the Pope’s speech, delivered in English:
"I take my place in a long line of Christian pilgrims to these shores, a line that stretches back to the earliest centuries of the Church's history and which – I am sure – will continue long into the future.
"I come, like so many others before me, to pray at the holy places, to pray especially for peace – peace in the Holy Land and peace throughout the world."
The Pope vowed to battle rising anti-Semitism, and spoke about his visit to Yad Vashem, scheduled for later in the day (Monday).
"Tragically, the Jewish people have experienced the terrible consequences of ideologies that deny the fundamental dignity of every human person. During my stay in Israel, it is right and fitting that I will have the opportunity to honor the memory of the six million Jewish victims of the Shoah, and to pray that humanity will never again witness a crime of such magnitude.
Sadly, anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head in many parts of the world. This is totally unacceptable. Every effort must be made to combat anti-Semitism wherever it is found, and to promote respect and esteem for the members of every people, tribe, language and nation across the globe.”
Relating to the political situation in the region, Pope Benedict said, "I plead with all those responsible to explore every possible avenue in the search for a just resolution of the outstanding difficulties, so that both peoples may live in peace in a homeland of their own, within secure and internationally recognized borders."
At the end of the reception ceremony, the Pope flew by helicopter to Jerusalem, where he was greeted at the Mount Scopus landing pad by Mayor Nir Barkat and other dignitaries.