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Ariel Schalit | AP
Pope Francis prays at Israel's separation barrier on his way to Mass in Manger Square next to the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Sunday.

Israeli, Palestinian leaders accept invitation to Vatican

BETHLEHEM, West Bank – Pope Francis plunged Sunday into Mideast politics during his Holy Land pilgrimage, calling the current stalemate in peace efforts “unacceptable” and winning the acceptance from the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to pay a symbolic visit to the Vatican next month to pray for peace.

Francis issued the surprise, joint invitation after landing in Bethlehem, the cradle of Christianity.

Jubilant Palestinians cheered Francis on the second day of his Mideast pilgrimage as he arrived for Mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, shouting “Viva al-Baba!” or “Long live the pope!” Giant Palestinian flags in red, white, green and black and the Vatican’s yellow-and-white flags decorated the square, which is home to the Church of the Nativity, built over Jesus’ traditional birth grotto.

A smaller crowd waving Vatican flags also surrounded Francis as he made a brief stop en route to the square at the Israeli separation barrier surrounding three sides of Bethlehem. Francis got out of his open-topped car and bowed his head in silent prayer before the massive concrete wall that Israel says is necessary for its security and the Palestinians say has stifled life in Bethlehem and engulfed land across the West Bank.

At the end of an open air Mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, the pope invited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to pray with him for peace.

“I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer,” he said.

Previous popes always came to the West Bank after first arriving in Tel Aviv, Israel. Francis, however, landed at a Bethlehem helipad from Jordan aboard a Jordanian helicopter and immediately headed into an official welcoming ceremony and meeting with Abbas.

Standing alongside Abbas, Francis declared: “The time has come to put an end to this situation which has become increasingly unacceptable.”

He said both sides needed to make sacrifices to create two states, with internationally recognized borders, based on mutual security and rights for everyone.

“The time has come for everyone to find the courage to be generous and creative in the service of the common good,” he said, urging both sides to refrain from any actions that would derail peace.

In his remarks, Abbas voiced his concerns about the recent breakdown in U.S.-backed peace efforts and lamented the difficult conditions facing the Palestinians. He also expressed hope for peace.

“Your visit is loaded with symbolic meaning as a defender of the poor and the marginalized,” he said.

Abbas listed a series of complaints against Israel, including continued settlement construction, the plight of thousands of Palestinian prisoners, Israel’s control of east Jerusalem – the Palestinians’ would-be capital – and Israel’s construction of the “ugly wall” that encircles Bethlehem.

“We welcome any initiative from you to make peace a reality in the Holy Land,” Abbas said. “I am addressing our neighbors – the Israelis. We are looking for the same thing that you are looking for, which is safety, security and stability.”

Security was lax by papal standards, even for a pope who has shunned the armored popemobile that his predecessors used on foreign trips.

Only two bodyguards stood on the back of Francis’ vehicle keeping watch as Palestinian police kept the crowd at bay. Francis waved and warmly smiled as his car made its way through the crowd in Manger Square, at one point holding a child passed up to him.

Palestinian officials have hailed Francis’ decision to arrive first in Bethlehem, rather than Tel Aviv, and to refer to the “state of Palestine.” In its official program, the Vatican referred to Abbas as the president of the “state of Palestine,” and his Bethlehem office as the “presidential palace.”

“The fact that he is coming straight from Jordan to Bethlehem, without going through Israel,” is a tacit recognition of a Palestinian state, said Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian Christian who is a senior official in the Palestine Liberation Organization.

In November 2012, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly recognized a “state of Palestine” in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem – lands Israel captured in the 1967 war – as a non-member observer. The recognition still has little meaning on the ground, with Israel remaining in full control of east Jerusalem, which it annexed in 1967, and the West Bank.

Israel objects to the Palestinian campaign, saying it is an attempt to bypass negotiations.

In addition to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Francis also sought to encourage Palestinian Christians, whose numbers have dwindled as the conflict drags on.

Currently, Christians are roughly 2 percent of the population of the Holy Land, down from about 10 percent at the time of Israel’s establishment in 1948. In Bethlehem, they are less than one third of the population, down from 75 percent a few decades ago.

“I want the pope to see the situation of the Christians,” said Salib Safar, 23, who studies hotel management in Bethlehem and was in Manger Square for Sunday’s Mass. “The wall (separation barrier), the occupation, the pressure on our lives.”

Francis acknowledged the Palestinian Christian hardship and in his homily sought to encourage the younger generations with a strong plea for children around the globe to be protected and defended from war, poverty, disease and exile as refugees.

“All too many children continue to be exploited, maltreated, enslaved, prey to violence and illicit trafficking,” he said, a mural depicting the Nativity scene with the baby Jesus wrapped in the black-and-white checkered Palestinian headdress behind him. “Today in acknowledging this, we feel shame before God.”

After Mass, Francis was to lunch with Palestinian families and visit a Palestinian refugee camp before flying by helicopter to Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion airport.

At the start of his weekly Cabinet meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the pope’s visit “an opportunity to present to the world the real Israel – the advanced, modern, tolerant Israel.” He said Israel guaranteed freedom of religion for all faiths.

About 8,000 police officers deployed in Jerusalem and 320 closed-circuit surveillance cameras monitored Jerusalem’s old city, said Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.

Early Sunday, police arrested 26 Israelis for throwing stones at police officers and causing disturbances at a Jerusalem holy site where the pope will celebrate Mass at the end of his trip. Rosenfeld said 150 religious Jews demonstrated to protest rumors that Israel will transfer control of the site to the Vatican.

Winfield reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Bethlehem contributed to this report.

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