Pope Francis made an unscheduled stop at Israel’s towering West Bank apartheid wall in Bethlehem Sunday after calling for an end to the “increasingly unacceptable” Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The pope has said his three-day visit to the Middle East, which began in Jordan Saturday, has “purely religious” motives, but Palestinians hoped he would show support for statehood, weeks after the collapse of US-brokered peace talks with the Israelis.
Francis was to continue his visit with a trip to Jerusalem later Sunday and meetings with Israeli leaders.
He flirted with the region’s sensitive politics when he climbed out of his white, open jeep in Bethlehem as his convoy passed near the apartheid wall erected by the Israelis.
Dressed in his white cassock and flanked by anxious Palestinian security guards, he walked over to the eight-meter (26-foot) high concrete barrier, which is topped by a guard tower.
Bowing his head in silent prayer, he paused for several minutes in front of the graffiti-daubed wall, his palm resting against the concrete.
“Pope we need to see someone to speak about justice. Bethlehem look like Warsaw ghetto. Free Palestine,” read the graffiti in English, scrawled over the wall that had been painted by the Israelis only on Friday.
The apartheid wall is illegal under international law.
The unexpected stop came as the pope, who is on a three-day visit to the Middle East, was on his way to celebrate mass with 10,000 pilgrims in a packed and colorful Manger Square, next to the site Christians revere as the birthplace of Jesus.
At the end of an open-air mass in Manger Square, Pope Francis invited Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to his home in the Vatican for a “heartfelt prayer” for peace.
“I wish to invite you, president Mahmoud Abbas, together with President Shimon Peres, to join me in heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace,” he said.
“I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer,” he said.
“Building peace is difficult, but living without peace is a constant torment. The men and women of these lands, and of the entire world, all of them, ask us to bring before God their fervent hopes for peace.”
His arrival in the West Bank early Sunday marked the start of the second stage of his brief tour aimed at easing an ancient rift with Orthodox Christians and speaking out in favor of regional peace.
Looking tired as he arrived from Jordan by helicopter, the pope received a red carpet welcome from local officials and priests.
Abbas received him at his palace with a warm embrace.
Abbas raised the thorny subject of Jerusalem – claimed both by Israel and the Palestine as their capital.
“We have informed his holiness about the tragic situation in Jerusalem… where Israel is systematically acting to change its identity and character, and strangling the Palestinians, both Christians and Muslims, with the aim of pushing them out,” he said.
Francis did not mince words in his speech, as he called for peace.
“The time has come to put an end to this situation which has become increasingly unacceptable,” he said.
“The time has come for everyone to find the courage… to forge a peace which rests on the acknowledgement by all of the right of two states to exist and to live in peace and security within internationally recognized borders.”
“For the good of all, there is a need to intensify efforts and initiatives aimed at creating the conditions for a stable peace based on justice, on the recognition of the rights of every individual, and on mutual security,” Francis said in the Biblical city, now a part of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The pope, hailing good relations between the Holy See and “the State of Palestine,” said the time had come “for everyone to find the courage to be generous and creative” in ending “a protracted conflict which has inflicted many wounds so difficult to heal.”
Israel began building a vast apartheid barrier through the West Bank in 2002 at the height of the second Palestinian intifada, claiming its construction was crucial for Israeli security.
But the Palestinians say the barrier, two thirds of which is located in the West Bank, as a land grab aimed at stealing part of their future state.
Arriving in Manger Square, Francis was greeted by a choir singing the Christmas carol “Angels from the Realms of Glory.”
Since dawn, Catholic pilgrims had filed past security barriers into the square. The scene was dominated by stage where the pope celebrated mass, decked with huge Palestinian and Vatican flags and adorned with a giant tableau depicting the birth of Jesus.
The Vatican said the main reason for the visit was a meeting in Jerusalem with Bartholomew I, the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, seeking to heal a nearly 1,000-year rift between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches.
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, police arrested 26 Jewish extremists protesting at a site on Mount Zion where the pope will celebrate mass on Monday.
The arrests took place just hours before Francis’ arrival in Jerusalem.
“Demonstrators at King David’s Tomb threw stones and bottles at the security forces, lightly injuring two police,” spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said, referring to a site revered as holy by Christians, Jews and Muslims where the pope will celebrate mass on Monday.
“Among those arrested was a soldier who threatened a police officer with his weapon when one of his friends was arrested,” he added, saying some of them had broken into the room where the ancient sarcophagus is located before being evacuated.
Israeli public radio said 150 extremists had gathered to denounce the pope’s upcoming visit and were chanting slogans against the atrocities committed by the church against Jews during the Crusades and the Inquisition.
US-led peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators collapsed last month amid bitter recriminations, ending a nine-month bid to reach a solution, with no political initiative on the horizon.
The pope was to have lunch with several Palestinian families then meet with refugee children at the entrance to Dheishe refugee camp.
During the afternoon, he will take a short flight to Tel Aviv where he will be formally welcomed to Israel by President Shimon Peres before flying on to Jerusalem.
(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)