Pope Francis delivered a powerful and highly controversial boost of support to the Palestinians during a visit to the region Sunday, repeatedly backing their statehood aspirations, praying solemnly at Israel’s security 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. On the second day of a three-day swing through the region, the pope arrived in Beit Lechem, before heading to Israel for the final leg of his visit.
While Francis mingled warmly with his Israeli hosts, his trip to Beit Lechem 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 the Deheishe refugee camp. He also held a private lunch with five Palestinian families who claim to have been harmed by Israeli policies.
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 office as the “presidential palace.” He pointedly called Abbas a “man of peace.”
Later, he called for a negotiated accord to end the Mideast conflict and invited the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to the Vatican to pray together for peace.
Peres and Abbas both accepted the invitation, their respective staffs 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 seems unlikely that Peres would receive a mandate from Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to negotiate with Abbas on renewing direct talks, as long as Abbas pursued his unity pact with the Hamas terror group.
Speaking at an arrival ceremony in Tel Aviv, Francis invoked “the right of the state of Israel to exist and to flourish in peace and security within internationally recognized boundaries.”
At the same time, he said there must be “recognition of the right of the Palestinian people to a sovereign homeland …”
The Pope also recalled the Holocaust, using the Hebrew word for the term, and said that “ever mindful of the past” there can be “no place for anti-Semitism,” mentioning the visit to Yad Vashem on his itinerary.
Pope Francis expressed “deep sorrow” for the victims of the attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussels that killed four people, while speaking at Ben Gurion airport. (With reporting by Reuters)