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Pope slams anti-Semitism on Israel visit

Jerusalem — Pope Benedict XVI on Monday denounced anti-Semitism and appealed for Middle East peace based on a two-state solution on the latest leg of a pilgrimage to press for reconciliation.

"Sadly, anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head in many parts of the world," said Benedict at the start of a high-security five-day tour of Israel and the occupied West Bank following a visit to Jordan.

"This is totally unacceptable. Every effort must be made to combat anti-Semitism wherever it is found," he said.

The pope hopes to repair Israel-Vatican relations which have been strained over his backing for the beatification of controversial Nazi-era pope Pius XII and lifting the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying British bishop.

Benedict also appealed for Israelis and Palestinians to resolve their conflict that has caused decades of bloodshed.

"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 recognised borders," he said.

Israel’s hawkish new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was visiting Egypt on Monday on his first foreign trip since taking office, has so far failed to publicly support Palestinian statehood.

In an "Operation White Robe," security-obsessed Israel is laying on stringent measures for the trip, with tens of thousands of law enforcement officers deployed and Israeli air space closed for the pope’s arrival.

In Jerusalem, where the 82-year-old pontiff flew in by helicopter from Israel’s international airport near Tel Aviv, entire sections of the city were to be shut down on and off during his visit.

"Even though the name Jerusalem means ‘city of peace,’ it is all too evident that, for decades, peace has tragically eluded the inhabitants of this holy land," the pope said.

Benedict will follow in the footsteps of Jesus and visit Jewish and Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, Israel and the West Bank.

But the German-born pontiff is not expected to receive the warmth that greeted his predecessor John Paul II on his landmark Holy Land tour in 2000, a papal first since Israel and the Vatican established diplomatic ties in 1993.

Four cabinet ministers of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish party Shas are to boycott a reception for the pope at President Shimon Peres’s residence on Monday "because of the pope’s past in the Hitler Youth," a party spokesman told AFP.

Benedict has said he was enrolled against his will after membership became compulsory in 1941.

But Jasmin, an 11-year-old Israeli, was ecstatic as she cheered the pope as the helicopter that took him from Ben Gurion International Airport touched down in Jerusalem.

"I believe this is a historic moment and I believe something will happen in this Holy City after his departure, something good," she said, smiling.

Benedict’s trip is a mainly pastoral visit aimed at encouraging the dwindling Christian population to stay in the Holy Land, as well as promoting peace.

The pope will meet senior Israeli and Palestinian leaders, top Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious officials, and Palestinian refugees living in the shadow of Israel’s controversial separation barrier near the spot where Jesus is believed to have been born in Bethlehem.

The Palestinians hope to use his visit to highlight their plight, with the West Bank still under Israeli occupation and Gaza in ruins from Israel’s devastating war on the territory in December-January.

Among the pope’s first stops in Israel was to be the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, where he was to lay a wreath in memory of the six million Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II.

"It is right and fitting that during my stay in Israel I will have the opportunity to honour the memory of the six million Jewish victims of the Shoah and pray that humanity will never again witness a crime of such magnitude," he said.

But he was to avoid the area of the memorial where a caption under a photo of Pius XII says the war-time pope failed to protest against the Holocaust — a stance that has angered the Vatican which disputes the claim.

Benedict unleashed a torrent of criticism in January when he lifted the excommunication of Holocaust-denying British bishop Richard Williamson and three other ultra-conservative bishops as a "discreet gesture of mercy."

Cyril Julien/AFP/Expatica