Pope Francis on Sunday landed in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, where he called for an end to “increasingly unacceptable” Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Jubilant, flag-waving Palestinians greeted Pope Francis in Bethlehem's Manger Square, where he later celebrated Mass on a stage next to the Church of the Nativity, where Christians believe Jesus was born.
At the open-air Mass for 8,000 at the Church of the Nativity, the pope said he wished to invite Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to join him at the Vatican "in heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace".
The pope's visit to the West Bank will be the the most delicate part of his stay in the Middle East, where his every word will be scrutinised. Church officials say his three-day tour of the region, which started on Saturday in Jordan, is purely focused on religious issues.
Previous popes always came to the West Bank after first arriving in Tel Aviv, Israel. Francis, however, landed at a Bethlehem helipad from Jordan aboard a Jordanian helicopter and immediately headed into an official welcoming ceremony and meeting with Abbas.
Many Palestinians see this move as a recognition of their push for full statehood.
Standing alongside Abbas on Sunday, Francis declared: “The time has come to put an end to this situation which has become increasingly unacceptable.'' He said both sides needed to make sacrifices to create two states, with internationally recognised borders, based on mutual security and rights for everyone.
“The time has come for everyone to find the courage to be generous and creative in the service of the common good,'' he said.
Bethlehem is surrounded on three sides by Israel's separation barrier. Israel says the barrier is a necessary security measure. But the Palestinians say it has engulfed land across the West Bank, stifled life in Bethlehem and blocked Palestinian access to their lands.
After meeting Abbas, Francis' stepped out of his open-air vehicle to inspect the barrier surrounded by Palestinians waving Vatican flags taking pictures with their cell-phones.
The pope then in a highly symbolic gesture prayed in silence and pressed his forehead against the wall that separates Jerusalem from the West Bank town of Bethlehem, before boarding his open-topped car for the rest of the ride to Manger Square.
‘Purely religious’ trip
Francis has insisted his visit will be "purely religious," with observers saying he will attempt to avoid the pitfalls of the intractable Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
But in a reminder of the ubiquitous political debate in the volatile region, a banner hanging on a mosque on the square read: "The detainees in the occupation's (Israel's) prisons are pleading for freedom and dignity."
Those hopes were echoed in the sea of pilgrims gathered at Bethlehem’s Manger Square on Sunday morning.
"He's not going to talk about politics, just spiritual matters," said Nabil Abu Nicola, who had travelled from Nazareth, Israel's largest Arab town.
"This is better, because a political understanding of this region is very hard. You need to be here for 20 years before you really understand the conflict," he said.
Other pilgrims expressed hope that Francis's message, even if only spiritual, could bring real change on the ground.
"I pray for peace in this region," said Father Dominic Tran, a priest who had travelled from Vietnam to attend the mass.
"Our country went through a long, terrible war, and we know what it's like, so we pray the pope can bring here the spirit of peace on earth," he said.
Angolan Martins Felisberto, sporting the red, yellow and black colours of his country, hoped the visit would signal a change for persecuted Christians in the Middle East.
"Francis's coming to Palestine means a lot because you have many Christians in the Arab world who are persecuted," he said.
The pontiff called for fresh peace talks on Syria in a speech to refugees in Jordan Saturday, the first day of a three-day visit to the Middle East, that continues in Jerusalem later Sunday and Monday.
"He's unlike other popes in terms of his humanity, and I hope he can bring real change on the ground," said Ibrahim Handal, a Bethlehem native.
"Hopefully he can help end the (Israeli) occupation and bring peace. Through faith, you can move mountains."
During his visit, Francis ate lunch with Palestinian families and visited a Palestinian refugee camp before flying to Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion airport for his visit to Jerusalem.
The Vatican officially supports the vision of an independent Palestine living in peace alongside Israel.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP, REUTERS)
Date created : 2014-05-25