IN A far-reaching and spontaneous symbolic gesture, Pope Francis stopped his motorcade between scheduled events in Bethlehem to pray before the massive concrete separation barrier that divides the Palestinian city from Israel, which erected the controversial wall a decade ago.
As security and staff formed a cordon through several dozen well-wishers lining the motorcade route, Francis made his way to the towering concrete wall. He stopped at a panel spray-painted, in black, “Pope we need some 1 to speak about Justice Bethlehem look like Warsaw ghetto” and, in red paint, “Free Palestine.” He bowed his head in silent prayer, laid his palm against the wall, and before leaving touched his forehead to it.
The unscheduled stop came after he called for an end to the “increasingly unacceptable” Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Israeli guards watched from a fortified guard tower overheard as the pontiff stepped down from his Popemobile and made his way to what may be the most photographed section of The Wall, as the barrier is colloquially known — a graffiti-rich section that tourist buses pass by entering from Israel en route to Bethlehem, which along with the rest of the West Bank Israeli troop shave occupied since 1967.
Speaking in Bethlehem, the Pope invited the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to the Vatican to pray for peace.
Francis’s visit comes just weeks after peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians broke down, and his invitation to Rome for Presidents Peres and Abbas – quickly welcomed by both – is an intriguing development, says BBC Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen.
Following the Mass in Bethlehem, the Pope flew by helicopter to Tel Aviv where he was formally welcomed to Israel by President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.