Pope Francis landed in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Sunday at the start of a two-day tour of the Palestinian territories and Israel. He arrived in a Jordanian military helicopter which touched down at a helipad in the town which is revered as the birthplace of Jesus, and where he was to meet with Palestinian Authority officials and hold a public mass later in the morning.
Some 10,000 were expected for Pope Francis’s mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, set to take place at 11 a.m. Francis was slated to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinian leaders at 10 a.m., after which he would drive in an open-top car through Bethlehem to Manger Square.
A huge crowd was already waiting in Manger Square hours before the pope was scheduled to appear, and the city was decked out with flags and banners welcoming the pontiff to the city.
According to the Ynet news site, the Coordinator of Government Activity in the Territories approved entry to Bethlehem for 23,000 West Bank Palestinians, as well as 600 Christians from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
The pope’s arrival was not without political undertones. A leaflet produced by the Palestinian Authority (but labeled “State of Palestine” in keeping with the PA’s new claims to statehood after a November 2012 UN General Assembly recognition of “Palestine” as an observer state) shows the highlights of Pope Francis’s itinerary in Bethlehem, at least as the PA sees it.
The leaflet (PDF) is dominated by a graphic representation of the Israeli separation barrier and red-roofed Jewish settlements. The barrier is labeled “Annexation Wall,” and the settlements sport construction cranes.
In its official program for Pope Francis’s arrival in Bethlehem, the Vatican referred to Abbas as the president of the “state of Palestine,” AP reported Sunday.
According to a copy of the speech Francis is to give in Bethlehem, he will refer to arriving in “The State of Palestine,” New York Times reporter Jodi Rudoren said via twitter Sunday morning.
“The fact that he is coming straight from Jordan to Bethlehem, without going through Israel,” is a tacit recognition of a Palestinian state, said Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian Christian who is a senior official in the Palestine Liberation Organization.
In his Middle East trip, Francis has continued his tradition of accessibility and has adamantly refused, much to the frustration of security-conscious Israeli officials, the kind of protective envelope Israel usually offers visiting officials, not to mention the spiritual leader of over a billion human beings. Francis has refused even the basic precaution of an armored vehicle, according to reports, complicating Israeli security officials’ efforts to stymie the unthinkable: an attack on the pope in the Holy Land.
AFP and AP contributed to this report.