In the days ahead of Pope Francis’s visit to the Middle East, his handlers in Rome were adamant that it would be a “purely religious”, not political, journey. But apparently, no one told the pope.
On Sunday, in what will be the epochal image from his visit, the pontiff diverted his popemobile to stop and pray at the graffiti-covered Palestinian side of the “separation wall” that divides the West Bank. A young girl holding a Palestinian flag stood at his side. He placed his hand near the words “Free Palestine” written in red paint in English before touching the wall with his forehead. The pope then went one step further by inviting both the Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas and the Israeli president Shimon Peres to visit what he referred to as “my home” in the Vatican on June 6 for what will be an impromptu peace summit at the Holy See.
The stop was a surprise even to the pope’s own people. Papal spokesperson Father Federico Lombardi told reporters traveling in the papal entourage, “I was not informed. It was planned by him the day before. It was a very significant way to demonstrate his participation in suffering. It was a profound spiritual moment in front of a symbol of division."
Later, after a mass in Manger Square attended by thousands of Palestinian Christians, he underscored his hope for peace in the Middle East, sending a clear message by calling the conflict “increasingly unacceptable” and using the term “State of Palestine” which Israel rejects. He had flown in by helicopter from Jordan to Bethlehem in order to avoid traveling through Israeli checkpoints, which delighted Palestinians. “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 rights for every individual, and on mutual security,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Israeli foreign minister later accused the Palestinians of hijacking the pope’s words as a “propaganda stunt.” According to the Daily Telegraph, the spokesperson said, "We had expected that the pope would make a human gesture. There's nothing political here. The Vatican recognized Palestine as a state a long time ago, not that we liked that 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 if the Vatican plays along with it so be it. We will find the time to speak with the Vatican through diplomatic channels about this.”
Both the Palestinian Authority and Israeli governments have accepted the pope’s invitation for the peace summit, but Hanan Ashrawi of the Palestinian Liberation Organization spokesman told The New York Times that while the summit is a nice gesture, Peres does not hold enough sway in policy decisions to make a difference. “The pope wants to play a constructive role, and maybe he thinks gathering them together he can do that, but he doesn’t know Peres doesn’t make political decisions at all,” he said. “Peres has been saying the same thing for years, and nobody listens. The political establishment is going one way and he just tries to give it a clean bill of health for public relations.”
On Monday, the pope will wrap up his three-day visit with a visit to the Grand Mufti in Jerusalem before laying a wreath at the Holocaust memorial at Mount Herzl. He will then spend the rest of the morning with the two chief rabbis from the Jerusalem Great Synagogue before bi-lateral meetings, first with Peres, and then with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He will finish his day with Catholic priests and nuns at the church of Gethsemane at the foot of Mount of Olives before returning to Rome Monday evening.