Pope Francis arrived Sunday in the place where Christianity began and said that the time had come to put an end to the “increasingly unacceptable” conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land.
“For the good of all, there is a need to intensify efforts and initiatives aimed at creating the conditions for a stable peace,” the pope said after meeting here with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Francis called for courage in the attempt “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 recognized borders.”
The exhortation came on the second day of a three-day trip to the Middle East, a brief pilgrimage that the Vatican says is a strictly spiritual one. But the intractable conflict that has wracked this region for decades is impossible to avoid for visiting dignitaries, and Francis is no exception.
Before celebrating Mass in Manger Square, close to the church that stands over the cave where tradition holds Jesus was born, the pope held a private meeting with Abbas, who spoke of Palestinian suffering under Israeli occupation in the West Bank.
Then, at the Palestinian leader’s suggestion and in a departure from the official itinerary, the pontiff was driven to the north of Bethlehem to see the large security barrier that Israel has erected around much of the city, enclosing it on three sides. Francis said a brief prayer.
“The pope is full of surprises,” said Yousef Daher, a Palestinian Christian from Jerusalem, who helped organize the pope’s events in Bethlehem.
Palestinians were buoyed by Francis’ decision to come directly to the West Bank from Jordan without stopping, as his predecessors did, in Israel first.
Thousands of people, some of whom had waited since the early hours, greeted the pontiff enthusiastically upon his arrival in Manger Square, under brilliant sunshine, in a simple Palestinian-made car. In the crowd were many Arab Christians who had come down to Bethlehem, outside Jerusalem, from the northern Israeli cities of Haifa and Nazareth, where Jesus was raised.
The pope devoted his sermon to one of his favorite themes: the importance of children and their well-being in a conflict-ridden world.
“All too many children continue to be exploited, maltreated, enslaved, prey to violence and illicit trafficking. Still too many children live in exile, as refugees, at times lost at sea, particularly in the waters of the Mediterranean,” Francis said. “Today, in acknowledging this, we feel shame before God, before God who became a child.”
He celebrated Mass on a platform erected in front of a huge mural of the Nativity, which depicted the infant Jesus swaddled in a black-and-white-checked kaffiyeh of the kind that the late Yasser Arafat habitually wore and that many in the crowd had draped over their shoulders.
Earlier, after his meeting with Abbas, Francis appealed to the Palestinian leader to help protect the rights of Christians in the West Bank. Their numbers have declined in recent years as a result of the simmering tensions and hardships of life under Israeli occupation.
The pope was scheduled to meet with local families in Bethlehem before being flown by helicopter to Tel Aviv to begin his visit to Israel.
Special correspondent Abukhater reported from Bethlehem and staff writer Chu from Cambridge, Britain.