John Paul II Arrives in Israel as Pilgrim in God's Footsteps

TEL AVIV, MAR 21 (ZENIT.org).- Finally, John Paul II sees his dream come true. Arriving from Amman in a plane of the Royal Jordanian Airlines, the Pontiff landed at nightfall in Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, where he was welcomed by the highest Israeli government officials, among whom were President Ezer Weizman and Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

"In this year of the two thousandth anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ, it has been my strong personal desire to come here and to pray in the most important places which, from ancient times, have seen God's interventions, the wonders he has done," the Holy Father said during the welcome ceremony.

A rainy, windy evening robbed the meeting of serenity. The ceremony was graced with the Vatican and Israeli flags. "Welcome to the Holy Land," Prime Minister Barak said firmly when he greeted the Pope.

The Holy Father explained that his visit "is part of a larger pilgrimage of prayer and thanksgiving which led me first to Sinai, the Mountain of the Covenant, the place of the decisive revelation that shaped the subsequent history of salvation. Now I shall have the privilege of visiting some of the places more closely connected with the Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Along every step of the way I am moved by a vivid sense of God, who has gone before us and leads us on, who wants us to honor him in spirit and in truth, to acknowledge the differences between us, but also to recognize in every human being the image and likeness of the One Creator of heaven and earth."

"I pray that my visit will serve to encourage an increase of inter-religious dialogue that will lead Jews, Christians and Muslims to seek in their respective beliefs, and in the universal brotherhood that unites all the members of the human family, the motivation and the perseverance to work for the peace and justice that the peoples of the Holy Land do not yet have, and for which they yearn so deeply," the Pope concluded, and raising his voice he said: "May peace be God's gift to the Land he chose as his own!"

In his welcoming speech, President Weizman was also very frank. He thanked the Pope for the petition for forgiveness, pronounced on March 12, for the anti-Semitism that on occasions some children of the Church have expressed, and he described Jerusalem as the "heart of Judaism, city of peace and pride of Israel."

John Paul II then returned to a waiting helicopter that took him to the Apostolic Nunciature in Jerusalem, where he will spend the night. Tomorrow, Wednesday, he will go to Bethlehem, where he will celebrate Mass in the Square of the Manger and later visit the grotto of the Nativity and meet Yasser Arafat.