Pope stops to view security wall on Bethlehem visit

Francis reiterates need for a two state solution on second day of trip to the Holy Land

Pope Francis touches the wall that divides Israel from the West Bank, on his way to celebrate a mass in Manger Square next to the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Photograph: Reuters

Pope Francis touches the wall that divides Israel from the West Bank, on his way to celebrate a mass in Manger Square next to the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Photograph: Reuters


On a beautiful sunny morning in Bethlehem on day two of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Pope Francis stopped his popemobile to make a point when he got down to look at the 26 foot high security wall that separates Bethlehem from Israel.

Even if he later steered a careful middle course by calling on the Palestinian and Israeli peoples to “undertake this promising journey of peace”, the Pope had made his point about what he called the “increasingly unacceptable” situation of protracted conflict in the Middle East.

Earlier, speaking to Palestinian authorities, including President Mahmoud Abbas, the Pope had appeared to urge the resumption of the currently stalled Israeli-Palestine peace talks, saying:

“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...The time has come for everyone to find the courage to be generous and creative in the service of the common good, the courage to forge a peace which rests on the acknowledgement by all of the right of two states to exist and to live in peace and security within internationally recognised borders.”

In saying this, the Pope was merely stating the Vatican’s long held view that the only solution to the conflict has to be one based on a “two states for two peoples” principle. Welcoming Pope Francis to Bethlehem, Mahmoud Abbas thanked him not only for coming to the town where Jesus was born but also for having stopped to meet and break bread with Syrian refugees during his visit to Jordan yesterday. Such gestures, said President Abbas, send out an important message to the world. For his part, the Palestinian leader said that he also wished to send out an important message of peace to Israel, calling on the Israeli authorities to work for a peace based on “mutual respect”.

Pope Francis also used his speech to the Palestine authorities to touch on another key theme of this papal visit, namely the role of an “active” Christian community in the Middle East, a community which desired to be “full” citizens in a context of “religious freedom”.

After his meeting with President Abbas in the Presidential Palace, the Pope then climbed into an open-topped popemobile to make the short journey to the Church of the Nativity, the place where Christians believe that Christ was born in a manger, and where he celebrated mass in front of a 9,000 strong crowd in Manger Square. It was at this point, as he made his way to the square that the Pope very pointedly stopped in front of the controversial security wall.

In his subsequent homily during mass, the Pope used the theme of the Christ child to bemoan the condition of “too many” children world wide, caught up in violence, human trafficking and exploitation of many kinds, adding:

“Still too many children live in exile, as refugees, at times lost at sea, particularly in the waters of the Mediterranean. Today in acknowledging this, we feel shame before God, before God who became a child...”

Thanking the Pope for his visit, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, said that we live in a world where all too often “there is no room at the inn” for far too many children.

Even as the papal mass was ending, there were very audible signs of the inter-religious nature of this special land when the “Adhan”, or the Muslim call to prayer, blasted out over a loudspeaker system adjacent to Manger Square, clashing with the final prayers offered by the Pope. Father Gianni Caputo, of the Salesian Pontifical University, told the Irish Times that the incident may well have been more a question of bad timing rather than any attempt to offend the Pope by disturbing the mass.

That not everything in this trip will flow smoothly was also indicated by the arrest this morning of 26 ultra-orthodox Jews who were protesting close to the Upper Room near Mount Zion, the place where Christ is believed to have celebrated the Last Supper with the 12 Apostles. The protesters argue that the Pope will “defile” the site tomorrow by saying an “idolatrous” mass there since the Upper Room is situated right above the tomb of King David, a holy site for Jews. As the Pope is about to discover, Jerusalem is nothing if not a place where religious iconograhy continually and polemically overlaps.