Pope Francis, in visit to West Bank and Israel, tries his hand at bringing peace

McClatchy Foreign StaffMay 25, 2014 

Mideast Pope

Pope Francis prays as he holds an envelope before placing it in on of the cracks between the stones of the Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray, in the old city of Jerusalem, Israel, Monday, May 26, 2014. The Vatican hasn't said if the contents of Francis' prayer would be released.

ANDREW MEDICHINI — AP

— Pope Francis turned what had been billed as a religious pilgrimage to the West Bank and Israel into an effort to renew the stalled peace process Sunday, inviting the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to join him in at his Vatican home in a prayer for peace.

The unusual invitation was an acknowledgement of the political dimensions of the pope’s visit, which has been carefully orchestrated to maintain a balance between conflicting Israeli and Palestinian claims.

The declared centerpiece of the trip was the pope’s meeting Sunday in Jerusalem with the spiritual leader of the Orthodox church, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, to mark the 50th anniversary of the landmark reconciliation between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

The two religious leaders signed a joint declaration, according to Vatican television, and were scheduled to meet again Monday in an effort to give renewed impetus to efforts to heal a rift that split eastern and western Christianity in 1054.

But the more contemporary conflict between Israelis and Palestinians took prominence during the pope’s visit to the West Bank and upon his arrival in Israel.

His invitation to Israeli President Shimon Peres, whose position is largely ceremonial, and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority was welcomed by both sides, though the proposed meeting was widely seen as symbolic and not a forum for negotiations.

Speaking in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, where he officiated at a Mass attended by thousands in Manger Square next to the Church of the Nativity, which is built over the spot where tradition holds Jesus was born, the pope invited Abbas and Peres to his home “to join me in heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace.”

“All of us _ especially those placed at the service of their respective peoples _ have the duty to become instruments and artisans of peace, especially by our prayers,” the pope said.

He repeated the invitation later at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport, where he was greeted by Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“I implore those in positions of responsibility to leave no stone unturned in the search for equitable solutions to complex problems, so that Israelis and Palestinians may live in peace,” the pope said at the airport ceremony. “The path of dialogue, reconciliation and peace must constantly be taken up anew, courageously and tirelessly. There is simply no other way.”

American-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians broke down last month, and the Obama administration has said it is taking a “pause” in peace efforts after nine months of intensive diplomacy in the region.

The pope’s statements and itinerary during his six-hour visit to the West Bank and planned 28 hours in Israel, ending Monday evening, was carefully designed to navigate the political minefield of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, showing empathy for both sides.

In a nod to Palestinian aspirations for statehood, the pope arrived by helicopter in Bethlehem directly from Jordan and referred to “the good relations existing between the Holy See and the State of Palestine.” The Vatican has used that term since the United Nations upgraded the Palestinians’ status there in 2012 to a non-member observer state, the same status granted to the Vatican.

In an unscheduled stop on the way to Manger Square that provided a powerful image, the pope got out of his car to pause for prayer at a section of a high concrete wall on the outskirts of Bethlehem _ part of Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank and a symbol of occupation to many Palestinians.

Israel says the barrier is a security measure to keep out attackers, but Palestinians say the structure, which slices into the West Bank, is an Israeli land grab, hemming them in and carving off parts of their land.

In Bethlehem, where he also met children at a refugee camp, and upon his arrival later in Israel, the pope called for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

“The right of the State of Israel to exist and flourish in peace and security within internationally recognized borders must be universally recognized,” he said at the Israeli welcome ceremony. “At the same time, there must also be a recognition of the right of the Palestinian people to a sovereign homeland and their right to live with dignity and with freedom of movement.”

In Israel on Monday, Pope Francis is scheduled to visit the national Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, and lay a wreath on the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, the first such tribute by a pope.

Earlier he is to meet the highest-ranking Muslim cleric in Jerusalem during a visit to the compound of Al Aqsa mosque, the third holiest shrine in Islam. He will then visit the adjacent Western Wall, Judaism’s most venerated shrine, a remnant of the retaining wall that surrounded the plaza of the ancient Jewish temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. He will also meet Israel’s chief rabbis.

The last item on his itinerary is celebrating Mass at the Cenacle, where tradition holds that Jesus celebrated the Last Supper on the night before his Crucifixion. The plan has been controversial, since Jews revere the site as the burial place of King David, and some have charged that the Mass is part of a papal plot to seize control of the location. Police on Saturday night broke up a demonstration outside the building.

To drive home his message of reconciliation between Arabs and Jews, the pope, who is from Argentina, included in his entourage a rabbi and Muslim religious leader whom he befriended when he served as archbishop of Buenos Aires.

They are Rabbi Abraham Skorka, former rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires, and Sheik Omar Abboud, a former secretary-general of the Islamic Center of Argentina.

Speaking to reporters before the visit, Skorka said he expected the pope to show an even-handed approach in both word and deed. “He will maintain balance,” he said.

Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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