Pope prays at separation wall, calls for Middle East peace- UPDATED

Pope Francis makes unscheduled stop at separation barrier, wins Palestinian hearts, while speaking directly of Palestinian state.

Pope prays at separation wall, calls for Middle East peace- UPDATED

World Bulletin/News Desk

Pope Francis on Sunday invited the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to come to the Vatican to pray for peace a month after U.S.-backed talks aimed at ending the Middle East conflict collapsed.

"In this, the birthplace of the Prince of 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," the Pope said at a Mass in Bethlehem.

"I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer," Francis said.

Asked about the invitation, a spokeswoman for Peres said in Jerusalem that he "always accepts any kind of initiative to promote peace". While Abbas heads the Palestinian government, Peres's presidential post is largely ceremonial.

Pope Francis made a plea for peace on Sunday at the start of a pilgrimage to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, saying the prolonged Israel-Palestinian conflict had become unacceptable.

On the second leg of a three-day visit to the Middle East, Francis delighted his hosts by referring directly to the "state of Palestine", giving support for their bid for full statehood recognition in the face of a paralysed peace process.

However Francis, speaking at an official reception in the Palestinian-run city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, made clear that a negotiated accord was needed, calling on leaders from both sides to show the necessary courage to forge a deal.

"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," he said.

Later, in an unscheduled stop, he descended from his popemobile when it drove past the hulking grey concrete wall that Israel erected 10 years ago during a Palestinian uprising, that divides Bethlehem from the adjacent Jerusalem.

In an image set to become one of the most emblematic of his trip to the holy land, a sombre-looking Francis rested his forehead against the concrete structure that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem, and prayed silently as a child holding a Palestinian flag looked on.

He stood at a spot where someone had sprayed in red paint "Free Palestine". Above his head was graffiti in broken English reading: "Bethlehem look like Warsaw Ghetto", comparing the Palestinian plight with that of the Jews under the Nazis.

Israel says the barrier, erected 10 years ago during a spate of Palestinian suicide bombings, is needed to secure its security. Palestinians see it as a bid by Israel to partition off territory and grab land they want for their future state.

Francis flew by helicopter to Bethlehem, becoming the first pontiff to travel directly to the West Bank rather than enter via Israel, in another nod to Palestinian statehood aspirations.

JESUS IN A KEFFIYEH

Standing alongside Abbas, Francis pointedly referred to him as "a man of peace and a peacemaker" before heading to Bethlehem's Manger Square, close to where Christians believe Jesus was born, to celebrate an open-air Mass.

A mural behind the altar showed Jesus, who was a Jew, swaddled in a Palestinian keffiyeh, with his father, Joseph, also wearing the black and white headdress, made famous by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

After barely six hours in Bethlehem, Francis heads to Israel, but to avoid a diplomatic tangle, he has to get back in his helicopter and fly to Tel Aviv airport for a welcoming reception, rather than drive the short distance to Jerusalem.

Israel calls Jerusalem its eternal and undivided capital, having annexed Arab neighbourhoods seized in the 1967 war, including the Old City, the site of the main religious shrines. The rest of the world has not recognised the annexation.

From Tel Aviv, he will get back in his helicopter and fly to Jerusalem for what he has said is the purpose of the whole trip - to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a historic meeting of Catholic and Orthodox Christian leaders, who moved to end centuries of bitter divisions between the two churches.

The Vatican's yellow and white flags flutter from lampposts across the city, and posters of a smiling Francis have been strung up from numerous buildings, but that might be as much as many locals get to see of him.

His decision not to use a bullet-proof car means Israeli security officials are clearing the roads and creating numerous "sterile areas" ahead of his 24-hour stay in the city.

ARRESTS IN JERUSALEM

Police said they arrested 26 people at a protest by Jewish nationalists on Sunday at the Cenacle in Jerusalem, the traditional site of Jesus's Last Supper, where Pope Francis is due to hold a Mass on Monday.

Some Jews believe the Tomb of King David is in a lower room in the same building. Jewish protesters gathered at the venue several times this month to denounce what they said were Israeli plans to hand over parts of the site to the Vatican.

The hall on Mount Zion, just outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, was constructed by the Crusaders and renovated by the Franciscans during the Middle Ages.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said 150 people took part in Sunday's demonstration and that some protesters threw rocks at police forces, who took 26 people into custody.

Last week, Israeli police and the Shin Bet internal security service handed restraining orders to some right-wing Jewish activists, whom they said intended to cause disruptions during the pope's brief visit.

Earlier this month "Death to Arabs and Christians and all those who hate Israel" was daubed in Hebrew on an outer column of the Office of the Assembly of Bishops at the Notre Dame Center in East Jerusalem.

Last Mod: 25 Mayıs 2014, 14:32
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