By MATTI FRIEDMAN
JERUSALEM - Pope Benedict XVI capped his Mideast visit Friday by putting aside the contentious issues he has confronted over the past week and making a pilgrimage to the site of Jesus' crucifixion.
A traditional escort of men in black robes and red fezzes accompanied the pontiff as he solemnly walked into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, rhythmically banging staffs on the ground to announce his approach.
Benedict knelt down and kissed the rectangular stone on which Jesus' body is believed to have been placed after the crucifixion. Then he entered the structure inside the church marking the site of Jesus' tomb and knelt inside alone for several minutes, hands clasped, as priests chanted nearby.
Thousands of soldiers and policemen were deployed Friday around Jerusalem's Old City for the pope's visit to the ancient church, which tradition holds marks the site of Jesus' crucifixion, burial and resurrection.
"On the last day of his visit the pope is coming to the most important place for us," said Father Bernt, a Catholic priest at the church. "This is the center of Christianity, so it's very special."
The pope is leaving the Holy Land having fulfilled his mission of reaching out to Jews and Muslims, but some are giving his five-day trip only mixed reviews.
Making his first visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories as pontiff, the pope has addressed the Holocaust, Israeli-Palestinian politics and the shrinking number of Christians in the region.
During his visit, he led 50,000 worshippers in a jubilant Mass outside of Nazareth, in an effort to rally his dwindling flock. He removed his shoes to enter Islam's third-holiest shrine, and he followed Jewish custom by placing a note bearing a prayer for peace in the cracks of the Western Wall.
He won appreciation from Palestinians for endorsing their call for an independent state. But some Israelis were disappointed with his treatment of the Holocaust, saying he could have gone further in a speech at the country's national Holocaust memorial.
The pope eloquently spoke of the suffering of Holocaust victims but did not follow the lead of his predecessor, John Paul II, in expressing remorse for the church's historic persecution of Jews. Neither did he discuss what some believe to have been the church's passivity during the Nazi genocide or his own time as a member of the Hitler Youth.
Those perceived omissions led officials at the Yad Vashem memorial to take the exceptional step of openly criticizing the speech.