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Pope in Israel calls for Palestinian homeland

JERUSALEM - Pope Benedict XVI called for the establishment of an independent Palestinian homeland immediately after he arrived in Israel Monday, a stance that could put him at odds with his hosts on a trip aimed at improving ties between the Vatican and Jews.

The pope also took on the delicate issue of the Holocaust, pledging to 'honor the memory' of the 6 million Jewish victims of the Nazi genocide at the start of his five-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Benedict touched down in Israel on the second leg of a weeklong pilgrimage to the Holy Land, after spending three days in neighboring Jordan. He is using the tour to reach out to both Muslims and Jews.

In his first public comments upon arriving, Benedict urged Israelis and Palestinians to 'explore every possible avenue' 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.'

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.

Parliament speaker Reuven Rivlin conspicuously skipped the airport ceremony, though his office said he would join the pope at Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

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.

The Vatican has also been widely accused over the years of not doing enough to stop the Holocaust - a charge it rejects. And the German-born pope himself has faced questions for his involvement in the Hitler Youth corps during the war. Benedict says he was coerced.

The pope 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.'

Later Monday, Benedict was scheduled to lay a wreath at Yad Vashem.

'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,' he said, using the Hebrew word for the Holocaust. He said he would 'pray that humanity will never again witness a crime of such magnitude.'

Israel and the Vatican are also at odds over the legacy of World War II pontiff Pius XII, a candidate for sainthood. 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.'

Dignitaries and religious leaders greeted the pontiff at a red-carpet ceremony at the Tel Aviv airport. Yellow and white Vatican flags fluttered alongside blue and white Israeli banners as an honor guard played in the background.

The pope smiled as he walked along the carpet, flanked by Israeli President Shimon Peres on one side and Netanyahu on the other. Other political leaders, along with black-robed Christian clergymen and Muslim religious leaders, stood in line to shake his hand.

'Your visit here brings a blessed understanding between religions and spreads peace near and far. Historic Israel and the renewed Israel together welcome your arrival as paving the great road to peace,' Peres said.

Later, the pope flew by helicopter to Jerusalem for another red-carpet ceremony. Mayor Nir Barkat handed Benedict 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 planned to meet with the family of an Israeli soldier held by militants in Gaza for nearly three years 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.