Pope Francis called the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate “unacceptable” as he landed on Sunday in the West Bank town of Bethlehem in a symbolic nod to Palestinian aspirations for their own state.
Jubilant Palestinians cheered Francis on the second day of his Mideast pilgrimage as he arrived for Mass in Manger Square, shouting “Viva al-Baba!” or “Long live the pope!” Giant Palestinian flags in red, white, green and black and the Vatican’s yellow-and-white flags decorated the square, which is home to the Church of the Nativity, built over Jesus’ traditional birth grotto.
A smaller crowd waving Vatican flags also surrounded Francis as he made a brief stop at the Israeli separation barrier surrounding three sides of Bethlehem.
Francis got out of his open-topped car and touched the massive concrete wall that Israel says is necessary for its security and the Palestinians say has stifled life in the biblical city and engulfed land across the West Bank. He briefly bowed his head in prayer.
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 Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Standing alongside Abbas, 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 recognized 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, urging both sides to refrain from any actions that would derail peace.
In his remarks, Abbas voiced his concerns about the recent breakdown in US-backed peace efforts and lamented the difficult conditions facing the Palestinians. He also expressed hope for peace.
“Your visit is loaded with symbolic meaning as a defender of the poor and the marginalized,” he said.
Abbas listed a series of complaints against Israel, including continued settlement construction, the plight of thousands of Palestinian prisoners, Israel’s control of east Jerusalem, the Palestinians’ would-be capital and Israel’s construction of the “ugly wall” that encircles Bethlehem.
“We welcome any initiative from you to make peace a reality in the Holy Land,” Abbas said. “I am addressing our neighbors — the Israelis. We are looking for the same thing that you are looking for, which is safety, security and stability.”
Security was lax by papal standards, even for a pope who has shunned the armored popemobile that his predecessors used on foreign trips.
When Francis went to Brazil last year, a half-dozen or more bodyguards jogged alongside his open-topped car anytime he went out.
With the crowds smaller in Bethlehem, only two bodyguards stood on the back of Francis’ vehicle keeping watch as continued…