Pope Repeatedly Backs Palestinian Statehood, Prays at Bethlehem Wall

The Slatest
Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
May 25 2014 4:18 PM

Pope Repeatedly Backs Palestinian Statehood, Prays at Bethlehem Wall

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Pope Francis is greeted by children from Palestinian refugee camps on Sunday

Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images

In what is likely to turn into the most emblematic image from Pope Francis’ trip to the Holy Land, the pontiff made an unscheduled stop at the wall in the West Bank that Palestinians see as a symbol of Israeli oppression. Francis placed his hand on the wall in prayer, right at a spot where someone had spray-painted “Free Palestine.” Right above where he briefly rested his head, there was more English-language graffiti: “Bethlehem look like Warsaw Ghetto,” reports Reuters. The images are unlikely to make Israelis very happy, particularly considering his visit to the wall came shortly after the pope called for an end to the “increasingly unacceptable” conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.

Pope Francis seemed to give Palestinians a boost at several points during his trip as he repeatedly backed “their statehood aspirations,” notes the Associated Press. He became the first pontiff to refer to the “State of Palestine,” points out the New York Times. And he also told children at a refugee camp that he understood their plight as they held up signs in English and Arabic complaining of their situation: “the right of return is our sacred right” and “injustice and oppression must end.” A PLO official tells the BBC that the visit went a lot better than they were expecting.

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In another surprise move, Francis made clear he wanted to go beyond words and symbolic images, calling on the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to a prayer summit at his apartment in the Vatican. "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. Both leaders accepted the invitation, according to Reuters.

The move suggests the pope wants to use his popularity to try to get the peace process moving again. “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,” the pope said. Although the meeting between the two Middle East leaders at the Vatican is unlikely to produce any breakthroughs the goal "is to give the Israeli and Palestinian peoples a picture of their representatives, deferential before a higher power, and united in common cause,”  writes David Horovitz in the Times of Israel.

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the "Today's Papers" column from 2006 to 2009. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoliti.