Pope Francis landed Sunday afternoon at Ben Gurion International Airport on the outskirts of Tel Aviv on the third stop of his visit to the Holy Land.
Francis arrived by Jordanian air force helicopter from the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, where he met earlier in the day with President Mahmoud Abbas and presided at a Mass attended by some 8,000 believers on Nativity Square.
The pontiff was received on the airport tarmac by Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as other leaders of the country’s three governmental branches, the army and the security forces, as per local protocol.
Francis will divide his stay of just 24 hours in Jerusalem among an ecumenical dialogue with the Eastern Orthodox Church, making a pilgrimage to several holy sites and meeting with Israeli authorities.
After the official welcome given him in Tel Aviv, the pontiff met with the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Bartolomew, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Both Francis and Bartholomew signed a joint declaration in Jerusalem’s Old City to work together to foster unity between the eastern and western branches of Christianity in the face of future challenges.
The bishop of Rome and the patriarch of Constantinople thus repeated the historic scene of 50 years ago when their predecessors - Paul VI and Atenagoras I, respectively - surmounted the tension and hostility that had existed between the two churches since the so-called Great Schism in the 11th century.
“Our meeting - a new encounter of the Bishops of the Churches of Rome and Constantinople, founded in turn by two brothers, the Apostles Paul and Andrew - is the source of profound spiritual joy for us,” they said.
Peres, meanwhile, congratulated the pope’s initiative of offering “his house” to Israelis and Palestinians to pray for peace because he has “always supported any initiative” of this kind that would foster peace, a presidential spokesman told Efe.