Pope prays at Israeli wall in unprecedented gesture
The Pope has prayed at the wall separating Jerusalem from the West Bank town of Bethlehem, in a spontaneous gesture that has surprised many
Pope Francis prayed in silence and pressed his forehead against the wall that separates Jerusalem from the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Sunday, during a visit which Palestinians claimed as affirmation of their claim to statehood.
In an unscheduled stop during his visit to Bethlehem, the town where Christ was born, the Pope ordered his white Popemobile to stop as it passed the separation barrier built by the Israelis.
He prayed for a few minutes at the graffiti-daubed section of the wall, beneath a watch tower manned by Israeli soldiers.
“He got down from the Popemobile and walked up to the wall,” said the Rev Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman. “He remained there for some minutes, praying silently. He then touched the wall with his forehead.”
It was an unprecedented gesture which delighted Palestinians. They were also pleased that during his various addresses in Bethlehem, Francis used the term “State of Palestine”.
His decision to travel to Bethlehem by helicopter direct from Amman, where he spent the first day of his three-day visit to the Holy Land, was also interpreted by both Christian and Muslim Palestinians as tacit recognition of the fight for a Palestinian homeland.
“The fact that he came straight from Jordan is a sign that the Pope sees Palestine as a state,” said Ilias Abdo, 59, a Christian clergyman from Bethlehem. “That was a deliberate decision – it was not by chance. This is a political visit as much as a religious one. He is hinting at recognition of an independent Palestinian state.”
George Zaineh, 55, a Christian from Bethlehem and the leader of a Scout troop, said: “His arrival from Amman straight to Bethlehem, without going through Israel, is very symbolic for statehood. He’s showing sympathy for the Palestinian people, who are besieged by the separation wall.”
Nayef Soboh, the Muslim owner of a kebab shop, said: “We are living under the last occupation in the world and the Pope knows that.”
Ashraf Khatib, a spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organisation, said: “This is not just a religious visit but a visit by the head of state of the Vatican City State to the state of Palestine. It shows that the Vatican supports the rights of Palestinians and their pursuit of independence and sovereignty.”
The Pope said Mass in Manger Square in the heart of Bethlehem’s old town, where he was greeted by cheering crowds who waved the Vatican and Palestinian flags.
He said Mass and delivered a homily in front of a colourful tableau depicting the baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph being greeted by the three previous Popes to have visited Bethlehem – Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
But an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman played down the pope’s decision to pray at the separation barrier but accused the Palestinians of turning his visit into a “propaganda stunt” by trumpeting the fact that the pontiff has referred to the “state of Palestine”, terminology Israel opposes.
“We had expected that the pope would make a human gesture. There’s nothing political here,” the spokesman said, referring to the praying incident.
“The Vatican has recognised Palestine as a state a long time ago, not that we liked at the time but it’s a bit surprising that the Palestinians are making it sound as if it’s something new. They are turning the visit into a whole propaganda stunt but that’s what they do and the Vatican plays along with it and so be it. We will find the time to speak with the Vatican through diplomatic channels about this.
“Rather than have a head of state and head of the Catholic church come here and give his blessings, the Palestinians are turning his visit into a compilation of political grievances.”
Additional reporting by Said Ghazali
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