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Pope prays at Bethlehem wall, calls for ME peace ‘Conflict unacceptable’

BETHLEHEM, West Bank, May 25, (Agencies): Pope Francis made a surprise stop on Sunday 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 as a child holding a Palestinian flag looked on. 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 they want for their future state.

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 process. 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 divisions.

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 US-backed peace talks. “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, just under two months before the veteran Israeli leader leaves office. 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 the 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.

Francis’s arrival in the West Bank early Sunday marked the start of the second stage of his brief tour aimed at easing an ancient rift with Orthodox Christians and speaking out in favour of regional peace. “The time has come to put an end to this situation which has become increasingly unacceptable,” the 77-year-old pontiff said. Flanked by Abbas at his official welcoming ceremony to the Palestinian territories, Francis added: “The time has come for everyone to find the forge a peace which rests on the acknowledgement by all of the right of two states to exist and to live in peace and security within internationally recognised borders.” Abbas raised the thorny subject of Jerusalem — claimed both by Israel and the Palestinians as their capital — accusing Israel of “systematically acting to change its identity and character, and strangling the Palestinians, both Christians and Muslims, with the aim of pushing them out.” Shortly afterwards, the “humble pope”, famed for his defence of the oppressed, halted his open jeep as his convoy passed near the controversial separation wall in Bethlehem erected by the Israelis.

The Vatican admitted the stop was a surprise. Dressed in his white cassock and flanked by anxious Palestinian security guards, he walked over to the eight-metre (26-foot) high concrete barrier, which is topped by a guard tower. He rested his hand and forehead on the graffiti-daubed wall, pausing for several moments in front of a scrawled appeal for his help: “Pope we need someone to speak about justice.” The stop came as the pope was on his way to celebrate mass with 10,000 pilgrims in a packed and colourful Manger Square, next to the site Christians revere as the birthplace of Jesus.

The pope then shared his lunch with several Palestinian families, before meeting with refugee children at the entrance to Dheishe refugee camp. Israel began building a vast barrier through the West Bank in 2002 at the height of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, saying its construction was crucial for security. But the Palestinians see the barrier, two-thirds of which is located inside the West Bank, as a land grab aimed at stealing part of their future state. Francis was set to meet Peres in Tel Aviv before continuing his visit with a trip to Jerusalem later Sunday.

Arriving in Manger Square in Bethlehem, Francis was greeted by a choir singing the Christmas carol “Angels from the Realms of Glory.” Catholic pilgrims had filed past security barriers into the square since dawn. The scene was dominated by a stage where the pope celebrated mass, decked with huge Palestinian and Vatican flags and adorned with a giant tableau depicting the birth of Jesus. The Vatican said the main reason for the visit was a meeting in Jerusalem with Bartholomew I, the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, seeking to heal a nearly 1,000-year rift between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches.

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, police arrested 26 Jewish extremists protesting at a site on Mount Zion where the pope will celebrate mass on Monday. In a separate development, Israel’s foreign ministry confirmed that two of the three people shot dead in an attack Saturday on the Jewish museum in Brussels were Israeli tourists.

The incident has drawn condemnation from top Israeli and European officials. “Francis comes in with a lot of political capital. He’s sort of a new Nelson Mandela, a new moral authority on the world stage,” said John Allen, Vatican expert for the Boston Globe. “The question is: can he spend that moral capital to shame both sides into talking to each other?” US-led peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators collapsed last month amid bitter recriminations, ending a nine-month bid to reach a solution, with no political initiative on the horizon. On arrival in Israel, Francis said he was “profoundly saddened” by the attack at the Jewish museum in Brussels, and he used his speech to issue a call for an end to anti-Semitism. “Let us promote an education... where there will be no place for anti-Semitism in any of its forms or for expressions of hostility, discrimination or intolerance towards any individual or people,” he said.

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