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Monday, May 26, 2014, 08:52
Pope Francis urges end to Middle East impasse
By Reuters in BETHLEHEM, West Bank

Pope Francis urges end to Middle East impasse
Pope Francis, onboard a Jordanian military helicopter, arrives at the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Sunday. He is to start the most delicate part of his stay in the Middle East, with visits to the Palestinian Territories and Israel, where his every move is being scrutinized. (Menahem Kahana / Reuters)

Pope Francis made a plea for peace on Sunday at the start of a pilgrimage to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, saying the prolonged Israel-Palestinian conflict had become unacceptable.

On the second leg of a three-day visit to the Middle East, Francis delighted his hosts by referring directly to the “state of Palestine”, giving support for their bid for full statehood recognition in the face of a paralyzed peace process.

Francis, speaking at an official reception in the Palestinian-run city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, made clear that a negotiated accord was needed, calling on leaders from both sides to show the necessary courage to forge a deal.

“For the good of all, there is a need to intensify efforts and initiatives aimed at creating the conditions for a stable peace based on justice, on the recognition of the rights of every individual, and on mutual security,” he said.

Later, in an unscheduled stop, he descended from his popemobile when it drove past the hulking gray concrete wall that divides Bethlehem from the adjacent Jerusalem.

Israel erected the wall 10 years ago during a Palestinian uprising and says it is needed for security reasons. The pope spent several minutes under the shadow of an Israeli watchtower and said a prayer, a Reuters witness said.

“Free Palestine”, said graffiti near where he paused.

Symbolic moves

Church officials say the Pope’s tour of the region is focused on religious issues. However, the stark dividing lines of the Middle East conflict are impossible to ignore, and the pope’s every move is being scrutinized for meaning.

Francis flew by helicopter to Bethlehem, becoming the first pontiff to travel directly to the West Bank rather than enter via Israel, in another nod to Palestinian statehood aspirations.

He was due to travel to Israel later on Sunday for a swirl of meetings, before returning home on Monday, with some 8,000 police deployed in Jerusalem to guarantee his security.

Israeli police said they arrested 26 people who took part in a protest by Jewish nationalists at the Cenacle in Jerusalem, the traditional site of Jesus’ Last Supper, where Francis was due to hold a Mass on Monday.

The protesters say the authorities are preparing to hand over control of the site — where some Jews believe King David is buried — to the Church. The Israeli government has denied any such deal.

‘A Man of Peace’

US-backed negotiations aimed at ending the Israel-Palestine conflict collapsed last month, with the Israelis accusing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of sabotaging the talks by agreeing to a unity deal with Hamas Islamists who run the Gaza Strip.

Standing alongside Abbas, Francis pointedly referred to him as “a man of peace and a peacemaker” before heading to Bethlehem’s Manger Square, close to where Christians believe Jesus was born, to celebrate an open-air Mass.

A mural behind the altar showed Jesus, who was a Jew, swaddled in a Palestinian keffiyeh with his father, Joseph, also wearing the black and white headdress, made famous by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

After barely six hours in Bethlehem, Francis headed to Israel, but to avoid a diplomatic tangle, he climbed back into his helicopter and flew to Tel Aviv airport for a welcoming reception, rather than drive the short distance to Jerusalem.

Israel calls Jerusalem its eternal and undivided capital, having annexed Arab neighborhoods seized in the 1967 war, including the Old City, the site of the main religious shrines. The rest of the world has not recognized the annexation.

From Tel Aviv, Francis was to get back in his helicopter and fly to Jerusalem for what he has said is the purpose of the whole trip — to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a historic meeting of Catholic and Orthodox Christian leaders, who moved to end centuries of bitter divisions between the two churches.

 
 
 
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