Pope gives Palestinians boost of support

By Mohammed Daraghmeh

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, May 25 2014 5:11 p.m. MDT

France stood up, put a hand on the wall, bowed his head and said a short prayer alongside a section on which "Free Palestine" is scribbled in graffiti.

In another unscripted move, Francis issued a surprise joint invitation for Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to come to the Vatican to pray for peace together. "I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer," he said.

The offices of the Israeli and Palestinian presidents quickly confirmed their acceptance, with the Palestinians saying the meeting would take place June 6.

The invitation — and the acceptances — were unexpected given Francis' insistence that his three-day visit was "strictly religious" pilgrimage to commemorate a Catholic-Orthodox anniversary.

Peres, a 90-year-old Nobel Peace laureate, holds a largely ceremonial position, and the Vatican meeting will be largely symbolic. But he nonetheless risks upsetting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the move.

Netanyahu has expressed anger with politicians that have reached out to Abbas at a time when the Palestinian leader is reconciling with the Islamic militant group Hamas. Israel considers Hamas a terrorist group. Netanyahu's office declined comment.

Isaac Herzog, Israel's opposition leader, said the pope, a close friend of Israel, had sent a clear message to Netanyahu through the invitation. Speaking on Channel 2 TV, Herzog said the pope was essentially saying, "Do something. It can't go on like this."

Francis flew to Israel's Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, where he was warmly greeted by an honor guard. With trumpets blaring, the country's top officials lined up to shake his hand as he walked a red carpet.

Francis deplored Saturday's deadly shooting at Brussels' Jewish Museum as a "criminal act of anti-Semitic hatred." Two Israelis were among the dead.

He also condemned the Holocaust as the "enduring symbol of the depths to which human evil can sink." Francis is to visit Israel's national Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, on Monday.

But the pope also lamented the dire state of Mideast peace efforts, saying the holy city of Jerusalem "remains deeply troubled."

He called for a "just and lasting solution" so that Israelis and Palestinians may live in peace. He said Israel deserves peace and security "within internationally recognized borders," while the Palestinians have a "right to live with dignity and with freedom of movement" in their own homeland.

In the run-up to Francis' arrival, Israel experienced a string of vandalism attacks on churches and Vatican properties, presumably by Jewish extremists.

Earlier Sunday, Israeli police arrested 26 Israeli hard-liners protesting outside a contested holy site revered by Catholics as the site of Jesus' Last Supper and by devout Jews as the burial site of the biblical King David.

Israeli extremists have spread rumors in recent weeks that Israel plans on turning the site over to Vatican control.

Francis made no mention of these incidents, but expressed hope that "this blessed land may be one which has no place for those who, by exploiting and absolutizing the value of their own religious tradition, prove intolerant and violent towards those of others."

In the spiritual highlight of his visit, the pope late Sunday headed to Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected, to meet the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians. Their meeting marked the 50th anniversary of a similar meeting between their predecessors that ended a 900-year rift.

Associated Press writers Karin Laub in Bethlehem and Nicole Winfield and Ariel David in Jerusalem contributed to this story.

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