Pope Francis prays at Bethlehem wall, calls for Middle East peace

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Pope Francis touches the wall that divides Israel from the West Bank, on his way to celebrate a mass in Manger Square next to the Church of the Nativity, believed by many to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. Photo
Pope Francis prayed in silence and pressed his forehead against the wall that separates Jerusalem from the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Sunday, during a visit which Palestinians claimed as affirmation of their claim to statehood.
Francis invited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to pray together at the Vatican for peace between their nations.
Francis flew to Tel Aviv by helicopter Sunday on the second day of his three-day Middle East visit. 
 
Speaking earlier in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Francis said the time has come "for everyone to find the courage to be generous and creative" in ending "a protracted conflict that has inflicted many wounds."
Francis was greeted with an honor guard Sunday, and the country\’s top officials lined up to shake his hand as he walked along a red carpet.
Israel\’s president, Shimon Peres, thanked Francis for his strong stand against anti-Semitism and noted the visit came a day after a deadly shooting at a Jewish center in Brussels.
"You carry a message of brotherhood among peoples, and friendship for all," Peres said.
Francis arrived from the West Bank town of Bethlehem, where earlier Sunday he voiced strong sympathy for the Palestinians.
On his second day of a visit to the Holy Land, the pope on Sunday called for Palestinians and Israelis to work together, saying the breakdown in talks between the two sides earlier this year was "unacceptable".
"In this, the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, I wish to invite you, president Mahmoud Abbas, together with president Shimon Peres, to join me in heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace," he said during mass in Manger Square. The offer was accepted by both sides.
 
Later, the pope is to preside over a joint prayer service with Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and buried. 
 
In the West Bank, the leader of the world\’s 1.3 billion Roman Catholics hailed the good relations between the Holy See and what he called "the state of Palestine."  Palestinian President Abbas said he told the pope Sunday that Israel is forcing Christians and Muslims out of Jerusalem. 
Francis also celebrated Mass at Bethlehem\’s Manger Square, near the site where Christians believe Jesus was born, before meeting with Palestinian children in Deheisheh Refugee Camp. 
 
Saturday in Jordan, Francis held talks with King Abdullah and heard first-hand accounts of the suffering of refugees who have fled Iraq and Syria for the safety of makeshift encampments in Jordan. 
 
The pope is to meet Monday with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  He will also visit Israel\’s national cemetery, Mount Herzl, and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
 
Previous popes have always gone to the West Bank after first arriving in Tel Aviv, Israel.  Francis\’ itinerary is being viewed as a symbolic nod to Palestinian aspirations for their own state. 
 
The papal visit comes just weeks after the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed.
Source: Agencies

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