Peres and Pope Francis
Peres with Pope Francis during a welcoming ceremony at Ben Gurion international airport. May 25, 2014 Photo by Reuters
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Pope Francis urged Israeli and Palestinian leaders “to leave no stone unturned” in their quest for a “just and lasting solution” to the ongoing conflict between the sides, upon his arrival in Israel on Sunday afternoon.

On the second day of his Mideast visit, the pope was greeted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres at Ben-Gurion International Airport, where he said “a two-state solution must become reality and not remain merely a dream.”

Earlier, the pope had traveled straight from Jordan to Bethlehem, where he was greeted by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other high-ranking PA officials. Abbas and Pope Francis held a private meeting, after which they attended Mass at the Church of the Nativity, in Manger Square.

En route to Mass, the pope made a surprise stop at the West Bank separation barrier. In an image likely to become the most emblematic of his three-day trip to the Holy Land – and one that swiftly appeared on news media around the world – Francis rested his forehead against the concrete structure that separates Bethlehem and 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.”

After meeting with Abbas, the pope called for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, stating, “While I express my sympathy for those suffering because of the conflict, I want to say from the depths of my heart that the time has come to put an end to this situation, which is becoming more and more unacceptable.”

The pope also called on both sides to recognize the other’s right to exist, within internationally recognized borders, and in safety and security. The pope stated that peace would bring limitless opportunities and advantages to the peoples of the area – and the entire world – before he called on both sides to work decisively toward peace, even if it means making compromises.

Peres, Pope Francis and Netanyahu at Ben-Gurion Airport, May 25, 2014. Photo by Haim Tzach, GPO

During their meeting, Abbas and Pope Francis spoke about advancing the Arab Peace Initiative (the plan first proposed by the Arab League in 2002). Afterward, Abbas mentioned ongoing settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the difficulties facing Palestinian worshippers seeking to enter the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Photo by AP

Pope Francis invited both Abbas and Peres to travel to the Vatican, to attend a joint peace prayer ceremony with him. Abbas and Peres’ offices responded positively to the invitations, stating they would travel to Rome next month.

Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, chairman of the Palestine National Initiative, told Haaretz that the pope’s visit is of historical significance for the Palestinians. “First, due to the fact that he traveled straight to Bethlehem from Amman, and not through Israel – this is definitely a recognition of the Palestinian state and Palestinian sovereignty. And second, because the pope stood next to the [security] barrier and prayed.”

Barghouti also noted that “the pope understands the significance of the barrier, and most certainly prayed for it to fall. He spoke about justice for Palestinian children – a clear message that anyone can understand as a hint to the Israeli government – though apparently the Israeli prime minister is not smart enough to understand the pope’s words.”

Pope Francis speaks in a meeting with children from nearby Palestinian refugee camps during his visit to the Dheisheh camp near Bethlehem. Photo by AP

Meanwhile, the Israel Police arrested more than 20 demonstrators overnight Saturday at the King David’s Tomb complex in Jerusalem, after they protested Pope Francis’ visit to Israel. After Shabbat ended, some 150 right-wing activists arrived at the complex and began demonstrating, allegedly attacking police officers with stones and bottles. Some of them entered the compound and barricaded themselves inside.

Police forces evacuated the compound and arrested 26 people for disturbing the peace, including a soldier who allegedly threatened police with his service weapon. A few police officers were slightly injured and one patrol vehicle damaged.

Pope Francis and Constantinople Patriarch Bartholomew kneel to kiss the Stone of Unction, traditionally claimed as the stone where Jesus' body was prepared for burial, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Photo by AP