JERUSALEM — Pope Francis delivered a powerful boost of support to the Palestinians during a Holy Land pilgrimage Sunday, repeatedly backing their statehood aspirations, praying solemnly at Israel’s controversial separation barrier and calling the stalemate in peace efforts “unacceptable.”
In an unscripted move, Francis arranged a meeting between the Israeli and Palestinian presidents at the Vatican next month. The meeting, while largely symbolic, shows how the pope has sought to transform his immensely popular appeal into a moral force for peace.
On the second day of a three-day swing through the region, the pope arrived in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christianity, before heading to Israel for the final leg of his visit.
While Francis mingled warmly with his Israeli hosts, his trip to Bethlehem included the day’s most powerful images as he expressed sympathy and solidarity with the Palestinians.
“I am with you,” he told a group of Palestinian children at a stop in Bethlehem’s Deheishe refugee camp. He also held a private lunch with five Palestinian families who say they have been harmed by Israeli policies.
Even the pope’s arrival in Bethlehem – by helicopter straight from Jordan – carried important symbolic significance. Past papal visits to the West Bank have come through Israel, which captured the territory in the 1967 war.
Palestinian officials hailed Francis’ decision to refer to the “state of Palestine.” In its official program, the Vatican referred to President Mahmoud Abbas as the president of the “state of Palestine,” and his Bethlehem office as the “presidential palace.” He pointedly called Abbas a “man of peace.”
Jubilant Palestinians cheered Francis as he arrived in Bethlehem’s 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 the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born.
In November 2012, the U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly recognized a “state of Palestine” in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem – lands Israel captured in the 1967 war – as a nonmember observer. The recognition still has little meaning on the ground, with Israel remaining in full control of east Jerusalem, which it annexed in 1967, and the West Bank.
However, it has enabled the Palestinians to start seeking membership in U.N. agencies and accede to international conventions in a further upgrade of their status. Israel objects to the Palestinian campaign, saying it is an attempt to bypass talks.
Standing alongside Abbas at a welcome ceremony, 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. He urged both sides to refrain from any actions that would derail peace.
After the meeting, the pope’s open-roof vehicle stopped at a section of the West Bank separation barrier, which encircles Bethlehem on three sides. Israel says the structure is a security measure. The Palestinians say it has gobbled up their land and stifled their economy.
Francis stood up, put a hand on the wall, bowed his head and said a short prayer alongside a section on which “Free Palestine” is scribbled in graffiti.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Francis had made a “personal decision” to stop by the wall. He said the barrier was a symbol of the conflict and it was appropriate for Francis to pray for peace there.
In another unscripted move, Francis issued a surprise joint invitation for Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to come to the Vatican to pray for peace together. The offices of the Israeli and Palestinian presidents quickly confirmed their acceptance, with the Palestinians saying the meeting would take place June 6.
Francis deplored Saturday’s deadly shooting at Brussels’ Jewish Museum as a “criminal act of anti-Semitic hatred.” Two Israelis were among the dead.
Francis is to visit Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, on Monday.