Pope: relations between Vatican, State of Palestine "good"
Pope Francis made an impassioned plea for peace on a pilgrimage on Sunday to Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, urging an intensified effort to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
With US-brokered peace talks now frozen, the Pope said he hoped "all will refrain from initiatives and actions which contradict the stated desire to reach a true agreement" for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
"For the good of all, 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 the rights of every individual, and on mutual security," Francis said in the Biblical city.
The Pope, hailing good relations between the Holy See and "the State of Palestine", said the time had come "for everyone to find the courage to be generous and creative" in ending "a protracted conflict which has inflicted many wounds so difficult to heal".
Pope Francis arrived in Bethlehem by helicopter from Jordan on Sunday morning on the second day of his first visit to the Middle East.
The pontiff met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He was also slated to conduct a public mass service in the central Manger Square and visit the Church of the Nativity before visiting the Dehaishe Palestinian refugee camp.
Israel granted permission to more than 600 Christians from the Gaza Strip to visit the city known as the birthplace of Jesus, Israel Radio reported.
Some 3,000 Palestinian security forces were deployed for the pope's visit and more than 1,000 media personnel were due to cover the historic trip.
Later, Sunday afternoon he is set to give an address at Ben-Gurion Airport, and will then move on to Jerusalem for the religious climax of his trip; a meeting with the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City.
He is the fourth pontiff to visit Israel but will be the first to lay a wreath a the grave of the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl.
The day before his scheduled arrival in Israel, Pope Francis arrived in Jordan Saturday afternoon and called immediately for urgent efforts to find peaceful solutions for the Syrian civil war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
He issued a call for religious freedom to be upheld throughout the Middle East, and said that Christians in Jordan were able to express their faith in peace.
The pontiff’s visit to Jordan is the start of a three-day trip to the region that will include stops in Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
Pope Francis flew through Israeli airspace on his way to Jordan, and asked the Italian pilot to send a personal message through the air-traffic control tower to President Shimon Peres and the citizens of Israel.
“I send my best wishes to you, Mr. President, and to all of Israel. I am waiting to meet you and visit your holy land. I am praying from the bottom of my heart for you and for the citizens of Israel,” he said.
Peres replied: “Welcome to Israel. Welcome to the gates of Jerusalem. The State of Israel greets you with love and respect as a pope who builds bridges of peace between all the religions. We attach great importance to your visit that is designed to bring nations together and to build a bridge of peace and brotherhood among all religions.”
When the two meet on Monday, Peres is set to thank the pontiff for his determined stand against anti-Semitism and to ask the pope to personally involve himself in efforts to bring peace to the region.
Peres will also emphasize Israel’s willingness to stretch out the hand of peace to all its neighbors – particularly the Palestinians.
On Saturday, Pope Francis was welcomed to Jordan by King Abdullah II, where he warmly thanked the Hashemite Kingdom for absorbing refugees from the different conflicts in the Middle East.
“While acknowledging with deep regret the continuing grave tensions in the Middle East, I thank the authorities of the kingdom for all that they are doing and I encourage them to persevere in their efforts to seek lasting peace for the entire region.
“This great goal urgently requires that a peaceful solution be found to the crisis in Syria, as well as a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” the pontiff said, describing the Syrian civil war as having lasted “all too long.”
The pope praised Jordan for affording Christians freedom of worship in the country, but alluded to the oppression of Christians in other parts of the Middle East.
“Religious freedom is in fact a fundamental human right and I cannot fail to express my hope that it will be upheld throughout the Middle East and the entire world. The right to religious freedom includes the individual and collective levels, the freedom to follow one’s conscience in religious matters and, at the same time, freedom of worship,” he said.
Later Francis gave a homily and mass at the 25,000-capacity International Stadium in Amman, and then moved on to meet with refugees from the Syrian conflict at the Bethany Beyond, the Jordan site on the east bank of the Jordan River.
He called for international support for Jordan to assist with the humanitarian needs of refugees and repeated his hope for peace in Syria.
“I renew my heart-felt appeal for peace in Syria. May the violence cease and may humanitarian law be respected,” he said. “May all parties abandon the attempt to resolve issues by the use of arms and return to negotiations.”