Pope Francis touches the wall that divides Israel from the
West Bank, on his way to celebrate a mass in Manger Square
next to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Pope Francis made a surprise stop 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 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.
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 Palestinians' plight with that of the Jews
under the Nazis.
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.
On the second leg of a three-day trip to the Middle East,
Francis delighted his Palestinian hosts by referring to the
"state of Palestine", giving support for their bid for full
statehood recognition in the face of a paralysed peace
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 myriad
Francis invited the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to
come to the Vatican to pray for an end to the enduring
conflict, just a month after the collapse of U.S.-backed
"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
Both accepted, their respective staff said. Palestinian
official Hana Amira said the meeting would take place on June
6, just under two months before the veteran Israeli leader
But it seemed unlikely that Peres would receive any mandate
from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to negotiate
with Abbas on renewing direct talks.
Netanyahu has said Israel would not consider resuming
negotiations unless Abbas reneged on a unity pact with Hamas,
one of its most bitter enemies which rules in Gaza. Abbas has
said a new government envisaged by the accord would be
committed to peace.
From Bethlehem, where the Pope also visited a Palestinian
refugee camp, he flew by helicopter to Tel Aviv airport where
he was welcomed by Peres and Netanyahu, before flying back
over the Judean hills to Jerusalem.
In a speech at the ceremony, Francis invoked "the right of
the State of Israel to exist and to flourish in peace and
security within internationally recognised boundaries".
At the same time, he said there must be "recognition of the
right of the Palestinian people to a sovereign homeland and
their right to live with dignity and with freedom of
The Pope also recalled the Holocaust, using the Hebrew word
for the term, Shoah, and said that "ever mindful of the past"
there can be "no place for anti-Semitism".
"A particularly moving part of my stay will be my visit to
the Yad Vashem Memorial to the six million Jews who were
victims of the Shoah," the Argentinian pontiff said. "I beg
God that there will never be another such crime, which also
counted among its victims many Christians and others."
Peres, welcoming the Pope in blustery winds but warm
sunshine, said: "We are grateful to you for assuming your
sensitive and resolute stand against all expressions of
anti-Semitism, against all manifestations of racism."
Francis started the day in Jordan and had flown straight to
Bethlehem, becoming the first pontiff to travel directly to
the West Bank rather than to enter via Israel - another nod
to Palestinian statehood aspirations.
He later met refugees from camps set up after the 1948
creation of Israel, when hundreds of thousands of
Palestinians fled or were forced to abandon their homes.
Children held up printed signs in English and Arabic saying
"the right of return is our sacred right" and "injustice and
oppression must end".
In the evening, Francis prayed for Christian unity with
Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, spiritual leader of
Orthodox Christians, in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre.
It was first time various branches of Christianity prayed
together inside the centuries-old structure where Christians
believe Jesus was buried and rose from the dead. They usually
are governed by strict rules of separation dating back to the
The meeting was the main religious purpose of the trip, timed
to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a historic meeting of
Catholic and Orthodox leaders, whose Churches split in 1054.