Landing in Israel on his whistle-stop tour of the Holy Land, Pope Francis declared Sunday that “there is simply no other way” besides a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace in this violence-racked region.
The pontiff was greeted by Israeli President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a military guard of honor upon his arrival in Tel Aviv on Sunday afternoon after spending part of the day in the cradle of Christianity, Bethlehem, in the occupied West Bank.
Underscoring the political and psychological gulf separating the two sides, however, Francis was flown by helicopter to Tel Aviv for his official welcome in Israel rather than make the land journey of just a few miles from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, the contested city where almost all his activities of the next 24 hours will take place.
“Jerusalem, of course, means ‘city of peace’….Yet sadly, Jerusalem remains deeply troubled as a result of longstanding conflicts,” Francis said.
“I implore those in positions of responsibility to leave no stone unturned in the search for equitable solutions to complex problems, so that Israelis and Palestinians may live in peace….The two-state solution must become reality and not remain merely a dream.”
Despite insisting that his trip is purely a religious one, the pope tried to give the moribund Mideast peace process a boost with an unexpected invitation to Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to meet him at the Vatican next month to pray for peace. The offices of the two leaders said that they accepted the invitation.
Peres, who will step down from the presidency in July, said that “the sacrifices of peace are preferable to the threat of war.” The 90-year-old senior statesman said Israel’s hand would remain “extended in peace” and called the popular Francis a “modest and far-sighted shepherd.”
Peres assured the pope that Israel was committed to religious freedom, a special concern of the Vatican in view of the large numbers of Christians, mostly Palestinians, who have fled the Holy Land as a result of the ongoing conflict.
Peres also thanked Francis for his “resolute stand” against anti-Semitism. While in Jerusalem, the pope is scheduled to lay a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, in an attempt to erase the hostility of a previous pontiff who refused to support the nascent movement more than a century ago.
Later Sunday, Francis met with Bartholomew, the patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic encounter between their predecessors, which led to a rapprochement between the two branches of Christianity after centuries of antagonism.
Before arriving in Tel Aviv, Francis met with Palestinian leader Abbas and celebrated Mass in Manger Square in Bethlehem, next to the site where tradition says that Jesus was born. The pope’s meeting with Bartholomew will take place at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, built on the site where Jesus is said to have been crucified and buried before his resurrection.
Special correspondent Sobelman reported from Jerusalem and staff writer Chu from Cambridge, England.