VICTOR L. SIMPSON | Associated Press
JERUSALEM — Pope Benedict XVI pledged Monday to remember the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, seeking to repair strains with Jews over one of the most sensitive issues at the start of a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
But his calls for the establishment of a Palestinian homeland threatened to overshadow the visit by putting him at odds with his Israeli hosts.
Benedict is using a weeklong pilgrimage to the Holy Land to reach out to both Muslims and Jews. He spent three days in neighboring Jordan before arriving in Israel.
"It is right and fitting that during my stay in Israel, I will have the opportunity to honor the memory of the 6 million Jewish victims of the shoah and to pray that humanity will never again witness a crime of such magnitude," the German-born pontiff told a welcoming ceremony at Israel's international airport, using the Hebrew word for Holocaust. Later Monday, he was to lay a wreath at Israel's national Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem.
While Israel's relations with the Vatican have improved greatly since Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, visited in 2000, differences remain, none deeper than the widespread belief in Israel that the Vatican did not do enough to halt the Nazi genocide of European Jewry.
The pope did not delve into any of the Holocaust-related controversies between Israel and the Vatican.
Israel and the Vatican are at odds over the legacy of World War II pontiff Pius XII, a candidate for sainthood. Benedict has referred to Pius as a great churchman, and in September, he praised what he called Pius' "courageous and paternal dedication" in trying to save Jews by quiet diplomacy.
At Yad Vashem, Benedict will not visit the main part of the museum, where a photo caption says Pius did not protest the Nazi genocide of Jews and maintained a largely "neutral position."
Benedict himself has faced questions for his involvement in the Hitler Youth corps during the war. Benedict says he was coerced.
The pope also outraged Jews earlier this year when he revoked the excommunication of a British bishop who denies the Holocaust. Ties were further strained when a senior Vatican official said during Israel's recent military campaign in Gaza that the territory resembled a "big concentration camp."
As soon as the pope arrived at the airport, he urged Israelis and Palestinians to resolve their differences.
"The hopes of countless men, women and children for a more secure and stable future depend on the outcome of negotiations for peace," he told a welcoming ceremony at Israel's international airport.
"In union with people of goodwill everywhere, 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," he added.
While Benedict has spoken in favor of a Palestinian homeland in the past, the timing and location of his comments were noteworthy.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in the audience, has pointedly refused to endorse the two-state solution since his election. But he is expected to come under pressure to do so when he travels to Washington next week. Netanyahu did not speak at the ceremony, then flew to Egypt for talks on regional issues with President Hosni Mubarak.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor played down the pope's comments, saying he was voicing a long-standing position shared by the U.S. and European countries.
"At any rate, discussing this is not the purpose of the visit," he said.
"I hear the cry of those who live in this land for justice, for peace, for respect for their dignity, for lasting security, a daily life free from the fear of outside threats and senseless violence," he said while visiting Israeli President Shimon Peres.
During the ceremony, Israeli girls in white dresses sang for the pontiff. Peres and Benedict planted an olive tree together, and the Israeli president presented the pope two gifts: wheat stalks developed by Israeli scientists and called Benedict XVI in his honor, and a 300,000-word Hebrew text of the Jewish Bible inscribed on a tiny silicon particle, using nanotechnology.
"I don't think you have one of these at the Vatican," Peres quipped.
Before speaking, the pope met privately with Peres and the parents of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit, who was captured by Hamas militants three years ago and remains in captivity in the Gaza Strip.
The pope has tried to improve interfaith relations throughout his four-year papacy, and as a cardinal, had a long record of promoting dialogue with other faiths. But Benedict has had to tread carefully on his Middle East visit because of past gaffes.
Benedict angered many in the Muslim world three years ago when he quoted a medieval text that characterized some of Islam's Prophet Muhammad's teachings as "evil and inhuman," particularly "his command to spread by the sword the faith." He later expressed regret that his comments offended Muslims.
Before leaving Jordan, he said he had a "deep respect" for Islam.
After arriving at the airport, the pope flew by helicopter to Jerusalem for another red-carpet ceremony. Mayor Nir Barkat handed Benedict a replica of an ancient map of the world, with Jerusalem in the center and dozens of children from three schools _ Christian, Jewish and Muslim _ welcomed him. The children waved Israeli and Vatican flags and red carnations, and many wore T-shirts that read, "I'm with the pope in Jerusalem."
"He loves us and wants peace," said David Sahagian, a 10-year-old from a Christian school in east Jerusalem. "I want there to be peace in Jerusalem and I want him to give us his blessing."
In the Gaza Strip, Palestinians were angry that the pope met the family of the captive Israeli soldier, but would not meet with relatives of any of the 11,000 Palestinian prisoners imprisoned in Israel.
Israeli police shut down a media center for the pope's visit that the Palestinian Authority had set up at an east Jerusalem hotel. Israeli authorities object to any attempt by the Palestinians to use east Jerusalem for official business because that would suggest Palestinian sovereignty there. Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war and the Palestinians claim it as capital of a future state.