During an unscheduled stop on his visit to Jerusalem, Pope Francis spoke of ‘State of Palestine’ and stopped at an Israeli-built barricade – seen by many Arabs as a symbol of oppression
Pope Francis made an unscheduled stop at the Israeli-built barrier that separates the town of Bethlehem from Jerusalem on Sunday, praying against the wall that has come to symbolise Arab-Israeli division.
The unexpected gesture in the cradle of Christianity came as the Pope was en route to Manger Square, where Jesus is thought to have been born 2,000 years ago.
Ordering his white Pope-mobile to stop, he clambered out and pressed his forehead head against the wall, which Israel began building a decade ago in order to keep suicide bombers from launching attacks on Jerusalem. Palestinians have long regarded it as a symbol of their oppression, and the section that the Pope chose to stop at bore spray-painted graffiti saying “Free Palestine”.
While the gesture delighted Palestinians, Israeli officials tried to play down the significance of the Pope’s decision to stop at the barrier, which snakes across the parched hills between Jerusalem and the West Bank.
“We had expected that the Pope would make a human gesture. There’s nothing political here,” said a foreign ministry spokesman, who accused the Palestinians of turning the papal visit into “a propaganda stunt”.
“But that’s what they do and the Vatican plays along with it, and so be it. We will find the time to speak with the Vatican through diplomatic channels about this.”
In another surprise initiative, the Pontiff, who is on a three-day tour of the Middle East, announced efforts to try to revive the Arab-Israeli peace process, which broke down last month. He invited President Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority and Shimon Peres, the president of Israel, to a meeting at the Vatican.
He made the announcement, which had not been part of his official programme, as he addressed thousands of Christians in Manger Square, enclosed on one side by the Church of the Nativity, the centuries-old church built over the spot where Mary is believed to have given birth to Jesus.
“I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer,” he said. “To build peace is difficult, but to live without peace is a constant torment.”
The failure of peace efforts was “increasingly unacceptable” he said earlier, standing alongside Mr Abbas at a welcoming ceremony.
The initiative was “a very significant proposal”, said Rev Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.
“I don’t remember anything else like this [by a Pope],” he said. “I think it is one of the signs of the creativity and courage of Pope Francis.”
Within hours both President Peres, who steps down over the summer, and President Abbas had accepted the invitation to the meeting, which is expected to take place on June 6.
The Pope was greeted by rapturous applause when he was driven into Manger Square, with crowds chanting “Viva al-Baba!” or “Long live the Pope!” and waving the flags of Palestine and the Vatican City State under a cloudless blue sky.
His reference to “the State of Palestine” rather than the widely-used “Palestinian Territories”, and his decision to fly direct from Jordan to Bethlehem, bypassing Israeli territory, was interpreted by many as tacit support for the creation of a Palestinian state.
The three previous Popes to have visited the Holy Land, including John Paul II and Benedict XVI, came to the West Bank after first arriving at Tel Aviv airport.
“The fact that he came straight from Jordan is a sign that the Pope sees Palestine as a state,” said Ilias Abdo, 59, a Christian clergyman from Bethlehem. “That was a deliberate decision – it was not by chance.”
George Zaineh, 55, a Christian from Bethlehem and the leader of a Scout troop, said: “It is very symbolic for our struggle for statehood. He’s showing sympathy for the Palestinian people, who are besieged by the separation wall.”
In an address to the Pope, President Abbas condemned the wall built by the Israelis, calling it “monstrous”.
He accused the Israelis of violating international law by building settlements, of unjustly keeping Palestinians in military prisons, and of squeezing Muslims and Christians out of the old city of Jerusalem in order to make way for Jews.
After the Mass, the Pope visited a Palestinian refugee camp outside Bethlehem, where Palestinian children held up signs in English and Arabic saying “the right of return is our sacred right”.
He then flew by helicopter to Tel Aviv for an official welcome by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and then onto Jerusalem, where he will on Monday visit the Western Wall and Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus is believed to have been crucified.
Additional reporting by Said Ghazali