Pope Francis has called the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “increasingly unacceptable”, urging both sides to take courageous and creative decisions to forge peace.
Francis spoke alongside Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas after landing in the West Bank town of Bethlehem in a symbolic nod to Palestinian aspirations for their own state.
Previous popes making Middle East pilgrimages have landed inIsrael first and then travelled to the West Bank.
Jubilant, flag-waving Palestinians greeted Francis in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, where he was to celebrate Mass on a stage next to the Church of the Nativity, built over Jesus’s traditional birth grotto.
Giant Palestinian flags in red, white, green and black hanging alongside the Vatican’s yellow-and-white flags decorated the square. Many in the crowd also wore black-and-white checked scarves around their heads or necks, a symbol of the Palestinian cause.
Francis said: “The time has come to put an end to this situation which has become increasingly unacceptable.”
He said both sides needed to make sacrifices to create two states, with internationally recognised borders, for the good of their own people.
In its official programme, the Vatican referred to Mr Abbas as the president of the “state of Palestine”.
In November 2012, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly recognised a “state of Palestine” in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem – lands Israel captured in the 1967 war – as a non-member observer.
The recognition still has little meaning on the ground, with Israel remaining in full control of east Jerusalem, which it annexed in 1967, and the West Bank.
However, it has enabled the Palestinians to start seeking membership of UN agencies and accede to international conventions in a further upgrade of their status.
Early today, police arrested 26 Israelis for throwing stones at police officers and causing disturbances at a Jerusalem holy site where the Pope will celebrate Mass at the end of his trip, Israeli police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said.
He said 150 religious Jews demonstrated at the holy site to protest at rumours that Israelwill transfer control of the site to the Vatican. According to Catholic tradition, the site marks the Last Supper of Jesus, but devout Jews believe the biblical King David is buried there, and they protest over Christian prayer at the site.
Christians are roughly 2% of the population of the Holy Land, down from about 10% at the time of Israel‘s establishment. In Bethlehem, they are less than one third of the population, down from 75% a few decades ago.
The Pope said: “The time has come for everyone to find the courage to be generous and creative in the service of the common good.”
In his remarks, Mr Abbas voiced his concerns about the recent breakdown in US-backed peace efforts and lamented the difficult conditions facing Palestinians. He also expressed hope for peace.
“Your visit is loaded with symbolic meaning as a defender of the poor and the marginalised,” he told Francis.
Mr Abbas listed a series of complaints against Israel, including continued settlement construction, the plight of thousands of Palestinian prisoners, Israel‘s control of east Jerusalem, the Palestinians’ would-be capital, and Israel‘s construction of the “ugly wall” that encircles Bethlehem.
“We welcome any initiative from you to make peace a reality in the Holy Land,” Mr Abbas said. “I am addressing our neighbours – the Israelis. We are looking for the same thing that you are looking for, which is safety, security and stability.”
Bethlehem is surrounded on three sides by Israel‘s separation barrier. Israel says the barrier is a necessary security measure but the Palestinians say it has engulfed land across the West Bank and stifled life in Bethlehem. After meeting Mr Abbas, Francis stepped out of his open-air vehicle to inspect the massive concrete structure.
He spent a few minutes at the wall surrounded by Palestinians waving Vatican flags and taking pictures with their mobile phones, and then boarded his open-topped car for the ride to Manger Square.
Security was lax by papal standards, even for a pope who has shunned the armoured popemobile his predecessors used on foreign trips.