Pope Francis on Sunday unexpectedly invited the Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the Vatican in attempt to revive the dormant Middle East peace process.
The Pope received spontaneous applause and cheers from thousands of Palestinian Christians and pilgrims in Bethlehem’s Manger Square as he made the invitation, which had not been briefed in advance by the Vatican.
"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 the conclusion of Sunday's Mass. "I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer.”
Representatives of both presidents confirmed that they will accept the invitation to meet with Francis at the Vatican next month. The sign that Pope Francis wants to play a personal role in bringing about an end to the decades-long conflict followed a morning of politics and spirituality in Bethlehem, as Francis pointedly praised Palestinian Abbas as a “man of peace” and called for a two-state solution before celebrating Mass at the birthplace of Jesus.
In an unscheduled stop, Francis walked over to part of the controversial wall, where one of the many messages written with graffiti asked him to pray for Bethlehem.
A Vatican official confirmed to The Tablet that the invitation and the stop at the wall were surprises. Referring to a spontaneous inspection Pope Francis made of the Israeli security barrier this morning, the official said: "Between the stop at the wall and the invitation, both of which were surprises, there is real hope for peace. All of this came as a surprise to us all."
After becoming the first pope to arrive directly into the Palestinian Territories instead of traveling through Israel, Francis and Mr Abbas held talks in the presidential residence while, under a clear blue sky outside, bands played Palestinian Christian music as thousands sang, clapped and waved Palestinian flags along with those of the Holy See.
At a press conference following the talks, Pope Francis said: “The time has come for everyone to find the courage … to forge a peace which rests on the acknowledgment by all of the right of two states to exist and to live in peace and security within internationally recognised borders.”
He added: “The time has come to put an end to the situation, which has become increasingly unacceptable.”
Pope Francis described President Abbas, with whom the Israeli Government has sometimes refused to negotiate, as “a man of peace, a peacemaker” For his part, President Abbas welcomed Francis to Palestine, which he called “the land of peace and love” and said the visit underlined good relations between the Vatican and Palestine.
President Peres knows President Abbas well and has called him a "partner for peace." The two men were on the respective negotiating teams during the Oslo Accord signed in 1993 by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat.
The Pope also spoke out in support of Christians in the Holy Land, who he said “desire to continue in this role as full citizens”. But unexpectedly, he did not make explicit reference to the declining Christian population in Bethlehem, which has dropped from 60 per cent to 15 per cent since 1990, partly as a result of the Israeli security barrier which increasingly surrounds the city and restricts travel and trade.
After walking over to a section of the controversial security wall that surrounds the city, the Pope then rode through the streets of Bethlehem in the popemobile to a packed Manger Square where around ten thousand pilgrims and Palestinian Christians had been queuing for entry from the early hours of this morning.
Political messages were displayed around Manger Square, with Biblical scenes juxtaposed with images depicting the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and a banner hung from the mosque which stands opposite the Church of the Nativity reading: “Welcome to Palestine. The detainees in the occupation prisons are pleading for freedom and dignity.”
But amid jubilant scenes and shouts of “Viva Papa!”, Francis arrived in Manger Square with a characteristic broad grin as he greeted the crowds before appearing at one point to be ushered away from the crowds by security staff.
Holding a simple cross believed to have been made locally from olive-wood, the Pope processed with local church leaders for the Mass held in Arabic and Italian.
Francis devoted his homily in the birthplace of Jesus to the theme of children, especially those living in poverty and the victims of human trafficking.
“Too many children today are refugees,” he added. “With all of this we are embarrassed in front of God, the God who made himself a child.”
After the Mass, the Pope made his invitation to Presidents Abbas and Peres and called on the world to pray for peace, speaking over a loud Muslim call to prayer from the mosque which is opposite the Church of the Nativity.
Over lunch the Pope met children and families from the Dheisheh and Aida refugee camps, two of 19 camps in the West Bank and annexed (Palestinian) East Jerusalem.
The Aida camp, which runs along side the security barrier, is often the scene of clashes between young Palestinians throwing stones and Israeli soldiers.
The Deheisheh Refugee Camp, which was set up in 1949, housed those driven out of villages around Jerusalem and the West Bank town of Hebron after the creation of the Israeli state in 1948. It currently has around 15,000 inhabitants.
UNRWA’s Commissioner-General, Pierre Krahenbuhl, said the Pope’s meetings with people from the camps “provides a rare and welcome opportunity to lift the lives and destinies of thousands of Palestine refugee children from oblivion and despair to visibility and recognition. Their voices and stories must be heard.”
Finally the 77-year-old Pope, who was visiting Bethlehem for the first time, prayed at the Grotto below the Church of the Nativity, where the spot that Jesus is believed to have been born is marked by a star.
Above: Pope Francis waves as he arrives to celebrate Mass in Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, West Bank. Photo: CNS photo/Debbie Hill
Above: A boy waves the Palestinian flag as Pope Francis celebrates Mass in Manger Square. Photo: CNS photo/Debbie Hill
Above: Pope Francis greeted during meeting in Dehiyshe Refugee Camp's Phoenix Cultural Center, near Bethlehem. Photo: CNS photo/Andrew Medichini, pool via Reuters
Above: Pope Francis prays in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Photo: CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters