(Vatican Radio) Pope Francis made an unscheduled stop on Sunday to pray at Israel’s security barrier en route to Bethlehem where he celebrated Mass in Manger Square. His car suddenly stopped and he got out and walked through the crowds to stand in front of the barrier and pray before it.
Listen to this report on this unexpected stop by Philippa Hitchen, our correspondent in the Holy Land: (full text below)
Before leaving Rome for his visit to the Holy Land, Pope Francis insisted his pilgrimage was of a “strictly religious” nature. Yet even before his helicopter touched down in Bethlehem early on Sunday morning, it was quite clear that, like every other high profile visitor to this troubled region, his every word and every gesture would take on a highly political significance.
Security in Palestine and in Israel in particular has been intense in the lead up to the visit. Here in Jerusalem the old city is in lockdown, with families forbidden to leave their homes for even a glimpse as the papal convoy passes by. More than two dozen ultra-Orthodox Jewish protesters have been given restraining orders to stop them disrupting any of the papal events. The Israeli papers have been voicing concerns about what the Pope would say, in particular about Palestinian rights and freedoms.
It was already a powerful image as the Pope’s open topped vehicle (he’d firmly refused to be shut into a bullet proof car) drove through the check point on the road into Bethlehem with the giant grey concrete blocks, barbed wire and menacing look-out towers of the so-called ‘separation barrier’ rising above his head. But no one expected him to suddenly stop the car, step out into the crowd and stride across to the graffiti-covered wall, symbol of the daily difficulties and oppression under which Palestinians continue to live. As people swarmed around him with i-phones trying to capture the image, the Pope stood for several minutes in silent prayer at the foot of eight-metre high wall which snakes for hundreds of kilometres through Palestinian territory, dividing communities or cutting them off from their land and scarce water supplies.
Just a few minutes earlier, the Pope had eloquently told Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas that “the time has come to put an end to this situation” of conflict which, even in the absence of violence continues to cause insecurity, the violation of rights, isolation…. shortages and sufferings of every sort.” Calling the president “a man of peace and a peacemaker”, Pope Francis appealed for all political leaders here to be courageous, generous and creative to find solutions and enable Israelis and Palestinians “to live in peace and security within internationally recognised borders.”
In the Holy Land, with Pope Francis, I’m Philippa Hitchen