Pope Francis made an unscheduled stop at the security barrier that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem on Sunday, praying with his head resting on the wall. The unexpected gesture came as the Pope was en route to Manger Square.
Ordering his white Pope-mobile to stop, he clambered out and pressed his forehead head against the wall, which Israeli began building a decade ago in order to keep suicide bombers from launching attacks on Jerusalem. The section that the Pope chose to stop at bore spray-painted graffiti saying “Free Palestine,” reported the Telegraph, which said that the gesture “delighted Palestinians.”
“We had expected that the Pope would make a human gesture. There’s nothing political here,” said an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, who accused the Palestinian Arabs of turning the papal visit into “a propaganda stunt”.
“But that’s what they do and the Vatican plays along with it, and so be it. We will find the time to speak with the Vatican through diplomatic channels about this,” the unnamed diplomat added.
In another surprise initiative, the pope announced efforts to try to revive the Arab-Israeli peace process, which broke down last month. He invited Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, and Shimon Peres, the outgoing president of Israel, to a meeting at the Vatican.
He made the announcement, which had not been part of his official program, as he addressed thousands of Christians in Manger Square, enclosed on one side by the Church of the Nativity.
“I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer,” he said. “To build peace is difficult, but to live without peace is a constant torment.”
The failure of peace efforts was “increasingly unacceptable” he said earlier, standing alongside Abbas at a welcoming ceremony.
The initiative was “a very significant proposal”, said Rev Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.
“I don’t remember anything else like this [by a Pope],” he said. “I think it is one of the signs of the creativity and courage of Pope Francis.”
Within hours both President Peres and Abbas had accepted the invitation to the meeting, which is expected to take place on June 6.
The Pope was greeted by rapturous applause when he was driven into Manger Square, with crowds chanting “Viva al-Baba!” or “Long live the Pope!” and waving the flags of the PLO and the Vatican City State, added the Telegraph.
His reference to “the State of Palestine” rather than the widely-used “Palestinian Territories,” and his decision to fly direct from Jordan to Bethlehem, bypassing Israeli territory, was interpreted by many as tacit support for the creation of a Palestinian state.