Pope Francis Stops to Pray at Controversial Site in Bethlehem

Pope Francis, known for his modest ways, arrived in the Middle East today with a rather immodest agenda: Appeal for peace in Syria and between Israelis and Palestinians.

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In a pretty groundbreaking move, Pope Francis issued an invitation to Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to join him at the Vatican for “a heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace.” The invitation was reportedly accepted by both sides although given that Peres' position as President of Israel is largely ceremonial, the act—which comes as peace negotiations between the two sides have stalled—will be seen as highly symbolic.

On his Holy Land trip, the Holy See also offered an endorsement of the State of Palestine, another first, especially given that Francis had previously said his visit would not be of a political nature. Francis also stopped at the controversial separation barrier in the West Bank city of Bethlehem to pray.

The barrier was built during the height of the Second Intifada to prevent attacks against Israelis, but also remains a symbol of high contention as it limits travel for Palestinians and divides neighborhoods.

Francis is currently en route to Israel now, where, as we mentioned earlier, will now enrage Palestinians by laying a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl.

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Pope Francis, known for his modest ways, arrived in the Middle East today with a rather immodest agenda: Appeal for peace in Syria and between Israelis and Palestinians.

Prior to his arrival, the stated mission of the pontiff's first Holy Land trip was said to be purely religious. However, any maneuvering whatsoever by the head of the Catholic Church in the tripwire-mired Middle East is bound to cause consternation.

At each stop on the orchestrated itinerary, the Vatican’s focus — to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a historic meeting of Catholic and Orthodox patriarchs — could be overshadowed as all sides dissect Francis’ every action. Already, his effort at ecumenical outreach, traveling with a rabbi and an imam from his native Buenos Aires, has led to criticism that he is not fully engaging local religious leaders.

This critique is small beer compared by Israeli complaints about Pope Francis' decision to break with precedent and enter the Israeli-controlled West Bank from Jordan instead of from Israel proper. And then, there is the Palestinian objection to Francis' planned visit to Mount Herzl in Israel, where he will lay a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism.

The diplomatic dance means that instead of traversing the half-dozen miles between Bethlehem and the Mount of Olives by motorcade, the pope will take a helicopter to Ben-Gurion International Airport for a presidential welcome demanded by Israeli protocol, and then reboard for a flight to Jerusalem."

But before we get to all that tomorrow, there's still the Holy See's visit to Jordan—the first stop on the whirlwind three-day tour. He delivered a mass at an open-air soccer stadium, which will be the largest crowd of his tour, and called for peace in Syria and a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He met with 600 Iraqi and Syrian refugees at Bethany near the River Jordan, believed to be the site of Jesus' baptism. The meeting was particularly symbolic given Jordan's role in absorbing refugees from Syria, Iraq, and in the aftermath of the first Arab-Israeli war.

Jordan last month opened a third refugee camp for Syrians, evidence of the strains the conflict is creating for the country. It’s currently hosting 600,000 registered Syrian refugees, or 10 percent of its population, but Jordanian officials estimate the real number is closer to 1.3 million.

So, 20 percent of Syria's population. But that only really tells half of the story:

Despite all the messaging, Pope Francis was still welcomed in the rote muscular way, a cannon-booming 21-gun salute.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.