Bethlehem, West Bank, May 25 (Reuters): Pope Francis made a surprise stop today at the wall Palestinians abhor as a symbol of Israeli oppression, and later invited Presidents from both sides of the divide to the Vatican to pray for peace.
In an image likely to become one of the most emblematic of his trip to the holy land, Francis rested his forehead against the concrete structure that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem, and prayed silently.
Such imagery seemed likely to cause unease among Israel’s leaders, who say 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.
On the second leg of a three-day trip to West Asia, Francis delighted his Palestinian hosts by referring to the “state of Palestine”, giving support for their bid for full statehood recognition.
But, speaking at the birthplace of Jesus in the Palestinian-run city of Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, he made clear that a negotiated accord was needed, calling on leaders from both sides to overcome their divisions.
Francis invited the Israeli and Palestinian Presidents to come to the Vatican to pray for an end to the enduring conflict.
“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 an open-air Mass in Bethlehem.
Peres and Abbas both accepted the invitation, their respective staff said. Palestinian official Hana Amira said the encounter would take place on June 6.
From Bethlehem, where the Pope also visited a Palestinian refugee camp, he flew to Tel Aviv airport where he was welcomed by Peres and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, before flying back over the Judean hills to Jerusalem.