Pope Francis ventured into the thicket of Mideast diplomacy today with an unscheduled stop at the barrier that separates Israel from West Bank Palestinians and an appeal for sacrifices to end decades of conflict.
The pope began his two-day visit to the West Bank and Israel today in Bethlehem, the biblical birthplace of Jesus, where he met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and celebrated Mass in Manger Square.
Francis, echoing the Vatican’s official position, called for “the state of Palestine” to be fully established and lamented the collapse of U.S.-mediated peace talks last month. “The time has come for everyone to find the courage to be generous and creative in the service of the common good,” he said.
In keeping with his reputation for unpredictability, the pope showed further support for the Palestinian cause with an unscripted stop at the concrete wall dividing Bethlehem and Jerusalem, part of the West Bank barrier Israel says it built to keep out attackers and Palestinians decry as encroaching on territory they want for a future state. The pontiff leaned his head against a section of the barrier, which had “Free Palestine” and “Apartheid Wall” spray-painted on it and was located near an Israeli military watchtower.
Abbas criticized Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, saying its restrictive policies have led to the emigration of Christian Palestinians. He also reasserted the Palestinians’ claim to east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as capital of their hoped-for state.
“We call on the Israeli government to halt these acts, which violate international law, and on our side, we have provided a vision for our capital in east Jerusalem, which will remain open to the followers of the three monotheistic religions without discrimination,” he said.
Francis invited Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to jointly visit the Vatican and pray for peace. Peres, who will hold talks with the pope tomorrow and is to end his seven-year term in the largely ceremonial office in July, replied in a statement that he “has always supported, and will continue to support, any attempts to advance the cause of peace.”
The pope’s trip included a visit today to the Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem, which houses Palestinians displaced by the 1948 conflict that gained Israel independence.
After he wound up his visit to Bethlehem, Francis boarded a helicopter for the 15-minute flight to Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport outside Tel Aviv, where he was greeted by Peres and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. There the pope repeated his support for “the right of the Palestinian people to a sovereign homeland,” while also affirming “the right of the State of Israel to exist and to flourish in peace and security within internationally recognized borders.”
Francis is the third pontiff to visit Israel since the Vatican established diplomatic ties with the Jewish state in 1993.
From the airport the pope was driven to Jerusalem for the remainder of his Holy Land visit, which began yesterday in Amman, Jordan, where he met with King Abdullah II.
“More than 8,000 police officers are involved in security measures that will be implemented throughout the visit,” Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said by phone.
Police broke up an unauthorized Israeli demonstration protesting the pope’s visit outside Jerusalem’s Old City earlier today, arresting 26 protesters, Rosenfeld said. The run-up to Francis’s Israel visit has been marred by at least five anti-Christian incidents by suspected Jewish vandals, police said, including “Jesus is garbage” spray-painted in Hebrew on a Jerusalem church and “murder to the pope’” painted on a military vehicle. Restraining orders were issued to keep some “right-wing” activists after police received information they intended to disrupt the papal visit, Rosenfeld said.
Palestinian activists have also objected to aspects of the pope’s visit, including his plan to lay a wreath tomorrow at the Jerusalem grave site of Theodor Herzl, founder of the Zionist movement that led to Israel’s birth.
“We hope that Pope Francis will not tarnish his visit to the Holy Land with such insensitive gestures that will deeply hurt Palestinians everywhere, Christians and Muslims alike, and will serve to whitewash Israel’s occupation and apartheid,” Palestinian rights activist Omar Barghouti said in an e-mailed statement.
A highlight of Francis’s trip will be his meeting today in Jerusalem with Orthodox Christian leader Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. Their encounter will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1964 meeting between the leaders of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, which led to a mending of the split that had taken place more than nine centuries earlier.