BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — Pope Francis called the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate “unacceptable” as he landed Sunday in the West Bank town of Bethlehem in a symbolic nod to Palestinian aspirations for their own state.
Jubilant Palestinians cheered Francis on the second day of his Mideast pilgrimage as he arrived for Mass in Manger Square, shouting “Viva al-Baba!” or “Long live the pope!” Giant Palestinian flags in red, white, green and black and the Vatican’s yellow-and-white flags decorated the square, which is home to the Church of the Nativity, built over Jesus’ traditional birth grotto.
A smaller crowd waving Vatican flags also surrounded Francis as he made a brief stop at the Israeli security barrier surrounding three sides of Bethlehem. Francis got out of his open-topped car and touched the massive concrete wall, constructed to stop a wave of suicide bombers who targeted Israel in 2000-2003, that Israel says is necessary for its security and the Palestinians say has stifled life in the biblical city and engulfed land across the West Bank. He briefly bowed his head in prayer.
Previous popes always came to the West Bank after first arriving in Tel Aviv, Israel. Francis, however, landed at a Bethlehem helipad from Jordan aboard a Jordanian helicopter and immediately headed into an official welcoming ceremony and meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Standing alongside Abbas, Francis declared: “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 recognized borders, based on mutual security and rights for everyone.
“The time has come for everyone to find the courage to be generous and creative in the service of the common good,” he said, urging both sides to refrain from any actions that would derail peace.
In his remarks, Abbas voiced his concerns about the recent breakdown in US-backed peace efforts and lamented the difficult conditions facing the Palestinians. He also expressed hope for peace.
“Your visit is loaded with symbolic meaning as a defender of the poor and the marginalized,” he said.
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,” Abbas said. “I am addressing our neighbors — the Israelis. We are looking for the same thing that you are looking for, which is safety, security and stability.”
Security was lax by papal standards, even for a pope who has shunned the armored popemobile that his predecessors used on foreign trips.
When Francis went to Brazil last year, a half-dozen or more bodyguards jogged alongside his open-topped car anytime he went out. With the crowds smaller in Bethlehem, only two bodyguards stood on the back of Francis’ vehicle keeping watch as Palestinian police kept the crowd at bay. Francis waved and warmly smiled as his car made its way through the crowd in Manger Square, at one point holding a child passed up to him.
Palestinian officials have hailed Francis’ decision to arrive first in Bethlehem, rather than Tel Aviv, and to refer to the “state of Palestine.” In its official program, the Vatican referred to Abbas as the president of the “state of Palestine,” and his Bethlehem office as the “presidential palace.”
“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 November 2012, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly recognized a “state of Palestine” in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem — lands Israel captured in the 1967 war — as a nonmember 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.
Israel objects to the Palestinian campaign, saying it is an attempt to bypass negotiations.
In addition to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Francis is expected to give a word of encouragement to Palestinian Christians, whose numbers have been dwindling as the conflict drags on.
Currently, Christians are roughly 2 percent of the population of the Holy Land, down from about 10 percent at the time of Israel’s establishment in 1948. In Bethlehem, they are less than one third of the population, down from 75 percent a few decades ago.
“I want the pope to see the situation of the Christians,” said Salib Safar, 23, who studies hotel management in Bethlehem and was in Manger Square for Sunday’s Mass. “The wall (security barrier), the occupation, the pressure on our lives.”
Safar said that in visiting Bethlehem, the pope was effectively saying: “Here is Palestine.”
After Mass, Francis was to lunch with Palestinian families and visit a Palestinian refugee camp before arriving at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion airport for a welcome ceremony.
At the start of his weekly cabinet meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the pope’s visit “an opportunity to present to the world the real Israel — the advanced, modern, tolerant Israel.” He said Israel guaranteed freedom of religion for all faiths.
About 8,000 police officers deployed in Jerusalem and 320 closed-circuit surveillance cameras monitored Jerusalem’s old city, said Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld. He said authorities feared Jewish extremists might try to create disturbances.
Early Sunday, 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.
Rosenfeld said 150 religious Jews demonstrated to protest rumors that Israel will transfer control of the site to the Vatican. Catholics believe the site is the location of the Last Supper of Jesus, while it is revered by devout Jews as the burial spot of King David.
Francis’ final event of the day is to be a prayer service with the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.
Francis has said the encounter marking the 50th anniversary of a landmark meeting between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, which ended 900 years of Catholic-Orthodox estrangement, was the primary reason for his three-day pilgrimage.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.