Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.
Breaking News

Pope Francis Endorses ‘Palestine’ on Surprise Visit to Israeli West Bank Wall

(Reuters) — Pope Francis made a surprise stop on Sunday at the wall Palestinians abhor as a symbol of Israeli oppression, and later invited presidents from both sides of the divide to the Vatican to pray for peace.

In an image likely to become the most emblematic of his trip to the holy land, Francis rested his forehead against the concrete structure that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem, and prayed silently.

He stood at a spot where someone had sprayed in red paint “Free Palestine”. Above his head was graffiti in broken English reading: “Bethlehem look like Warsaw Ghetto”, comparing the Palestinians’ plight with that of the Jews under the Nazis.

Such imagery seemed likely to cause unease among Israel’s leaders, who say the barrier, erected 10 years ago during a spate of Palestinian suicide bombings, is needed to secure its security. Palestinians see it as a bid by Israel to partition off territory and grab land.

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

But, speaking at the birthplace of Jesus in the Palestinian-run city of Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, he made clear that a negotiated accord was needed, calling on leaders from both sides to overcome their myriad divisions.

Francis invited the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to come to the Vatican to pray for an end to the enduring conflict, just a month after the collapse of U.S.-backed peace talks.

“In this, the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, I wish to invite you, President Mahmoud Abbas, together with President Shimon Peres, to join me in heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace,” the Pope said at an open-air Mass in Bethlehem.

Both accepted, their respective staff said. Palestinian official Hana Amira said the meeting would take place on June 6, just under two months before the veteran Israeli leader leaves office.

But it seemed unlikely that Peres would receive any mandate from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to negotiate with Abbas on renewing direct talks.

Netanyahu has said Israel would not consider resuming negotiations unless Abbas reneged on a unity pact with Hamas, one of its most bitter enemies which rules in Gaza. Abbas has said a new government envisaged by the accord would be committed to peace.

ISRAELI ARRIVAL

From Bethlehem, where the Pope also visited a Palestinian refugee camp, he flew by helicopter to Tel Aviv airport where he was welcomed by Peres and Netanyahu, before flying back over the Judean hills to Jerusalem.

In a speech at the ceremony, Francis invoked “the right of the State of Israel to exist and to flourish in peace and security within internationally recognized boundaries”.

At the same time, he said there must be “recognition of the right of the Palestinian people to a sovereign homeland and their right to live with dignity and with freedom of movement”.

The Pope also recalled the Holocaust, using the Hebrew word for the term, Shoah, and said that “ever mindful of the past” there can be “no place for anti-Semitism”.

“A particularly moving part of my stay will be my visit to the Yad Vashem Memorial to the six million Jews who were victims of the Shoah,” the Argentinian pontiff said. “I beg God that there will never be another such crime, which also counted among its victims many Christians and others.”

Peres, welcoming the Pope in blustery winds but warm sunshine, said: “We are grateful to you for assuming your sensitive and resolute stand against all expressions of anti-Semitism, against all manifestations of racism.”

Francis started the day in Jordan and had flown straight to Bethlehem, becoming the first pontiff to travel directly to the West Bank rather than to enter via Israel – another nod to Palestinian statehood aspirations.

He later met refugees from camps set up after the 1948 creation of Israel, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were forced to abandon their homes. Children held up printed signs in English and Arabic saying “the right of return is our sacred right” and “injustice and oppression must end”.

In the evening, Francis prayed for Christian unity with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians, in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher.

It was first time various branches of Christianity prayed together inside the centuries-old structure where Christians believe Jesus was buried and rose from the dead. They usually are governed by strict rules of separation dating back to the Ottoman Empire.

The meeting was the main religious purpose of the trip, timed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a historic meeting of Catholic and Orthodox leaders, whose Churches split in 1054.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Explore

Most Popular

In Case You Missed It

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.