Pope Benedict XVI entered the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Old City on Tuesday, becoming the first pontiff to visit the sacred shrine amid efforts to promote religious dialogue on a Middle East tour marked by controversy.
The 82-year-old pontiff was greeted at the entrance by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Mohammed Mohammad Hussein and took off his shoes as is tradition when entering a Muslim holy site.
The late Pope John Paul II visited the compound during his landmark 2000 pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but did not enter the Dome of the Rock, whose huge golden cupola is one of Jerusalem’s main landmarks.
The shrine is located on al-Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary), also known as the al-Aqsa Mosque compound, which is Islam's third holiest spot.
After meeting the Grand Mufti, Palestinians' senior Muslim cleric, at the Dome of the Rock which dominates the Old City, the Pontiff met Israel's two chief rabbis at the Western Wall just below the mosque compound.
Also known as the Wailing Wall, the sacred site is the top pilgrimage destination for the world's Jews.
The Dome covers the spot where all three great monotheistic religions believe Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son to God, before an angel stayed his hand. King Solomon and his successors built Jewish temples on the site before the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in AD 70 and Jews scattered in exile.
In the 7th century, Islamic conquerors built the first Dome on the spot, where Muslims also believe Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.
The site is the holiest in Judaism and has been a major flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where the latest Palestinian uprising erupted in 2000.
The pope will later visit the site of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples before his crucifixion and resurrection, the key to Jerusalem's importance for Christians, before saying Mass for thousands of worshippers at the Garden of Gethsemane.
Arriving on Monday after three days in Jordan, Pope Benedict found his efforts to heal differences with Jews and Muslims challenged by Israeli disappointment with his speech at Jerusalem's Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, and by a fiery anti-Israel speech, delivered in his presence by a Palestinian Muslim cleric, which annoyed both the Vatican and Israelis.
The German leader of the world's billion Roman Catholics was a member of the Hitler Youth, when enrolment was compulsory, and drafted into German forces in World War Two.
By pledging to honor the Nazis' six million Jewish victims, he addressed Jewish concerns about his reinstatement of a bishop who denied the extent of the Holocaust. In a speech on arrival in Israel, Benedict also deplored continued anti-Semitism and said it must be resisted.
However, some Jewish leaders were disappointed by his later remarks at Yad Vashem when he spoke of the "horrific tragedy of the Shoah", the Hebrew term for the Holocaust, and called it an atrocity that had disgraced mankind and must never be repeated.
Former Israeli chief rabbi Israel Meir Lau said the pope should have been more explicit in his comments at the memorial.
"There certainly was no apology expressed here," he said. "Something was missing."
Yad Vashem has been a source of friction between Catholics and Jews for some years. Its museum, which the pope did not visit, includes a picture of Pope Pius XII with a caption saying he remained neutral between Nazi Germany and Jews in World War Two. The Vatican says Pius worked quietly to save Jews.
Pope Benedict has also been working to reach out to Muslims since remarks in 2006 that many found critical of Islam. His promotion of a three-way dialogue in Jerusalem among Christians, Jews and Muslims hit a snag on Monday, however, when an outspoken Palestinian Muslim cleric lambasted Israeli policy in the city and urged the pope to help stop Israeli "crimes"