Pope Francis found himself at the centre of a propaganda war between Israel and the Palestinians today after agreeing to visit a memorial to victims of terrorism following his prayer at the West Bank security barrier yesterday.
Israeli officials were reportedly alarmed last night after Francis approached the controversial security barrier in Bethlehem and prayed, resting his head on the wall, a gesture that could become the defining image of the Pope's three-day Middle East trip.
In an apparent battle over imagery the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, persuaded the Pope to make an unscheduled stop at the Memorial To The Victims of Terror on Mount Zion today, after laying a wreath at the tomb of Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism.
Mr Netanyahu showed Francis a panel with the names of 85 victims of an attack in Buenos Aires on a Jewish community centre in 1994 . The Pope briefly laid his hand on the memorial and condemned terrorism at the site, calling it “evil.”
Mr Netanyahu later issued a statement confirming that he had asked the Pope to make the stop and that he had briefed him on the advantages of the security barrier, which Israel claims has prevented suicide bombings.
"I want to thank the Pope for accepting my request to visit this memorial," he said. "I explained to the Pope that the establishment of the barrier he visited yesterday has prevented many more victims of Palestinian terrror that continues to this very day and that Palestinian terrorists were planning and continue to plan."
At a press briefing in Jerusalem the Pope’s official spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi was repeatedly questioned about the unscheduled visits. Asked to confirm that Israeli officials were “angry” after the Pope prayed at the security barrier yesterday, he confirmed that he had heard such reports. He added that the visit to the memorial was “very appreciated” by Israel.
The row came as the Pope met with Israeli President Shimon Peres, who he praised as a “man of peace and a peacemaker”, the same words he used to describe Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Pope Francis has invited both leaders to the Vatican next month.
“I appreciate and admire the approach you have taken,” the Pope told President Peres. “Peacemaking demands first and foremost respect for the dignity and freedom of every human person, which Jews, Christians and Muslims alike believe to be created by God and destined to eternal life … Here I renew my plea that all parties avoid initiatives and actions which contradict their stated determination to reach a true agreement and that they tirelessly work for peace, with decisiveness and tenacity.”
Above: Composite of Pope Francis at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, left, and at the security barrier, right. Photos: CNS photo/Paul Haring, CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano, pool
Above: Pope Francis visits a memorial at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. Photo: CNS photo/ OSSERVATORE ROMANO handout, EPA
Above: Pope Francis stops in front of the Israeli security wall in Bethlehem, West Bank, 25 May. Photo: CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano, pool