Prior to his arrival in the Holy Land on Sunday, Pope Francis cautioned that his visit would be “strictly religious” in nature. But that didn’t stop both Israel and the Palestinians from trying to corral the pontiff into the conflict on their respective sides.
By the time he stepped off the helicopter in Bethlehem, it seemed Francis had acquiesced to the inevitable, telling his audience that it was high time to bring an end to the “increasingly unacceptable” Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to do so on the basis of a two-state solution.
The pope then went so far as to christen the land he was standing upon as the “State of Palestine.”
“Our recent meeting in the Vatican and my presence today in Palestine attest to the good relations existing between the Holy See and the State of Palestine,” he said standing next to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
The gesture won Francis enthusiastic applause from the audience in Bethlehem, where the pope then conducted a much-anticipated Mass. Unsurprisingly, the Mass was interrupted by exaggeratedly-loud calls to prayer from the adjacent mosque.
Despite what most Israelis would see as a political slight in Francis’ recognition of “Palestine,” the Jewish state was also eagerly awaiting the pope’s crossing into Israel-proper when he traveled the few miles from Bethlehem to Jerusalem later in the day.
Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it went to great trouble to make Francis’ visit a welcome and memorable one, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it an opportunity to show off a “modern, tolerant Israel,” the only state in the region with true freedom of religion.
Though he was constantly tugged at by the advocates of state politics, the pope’s primary purpose for visiting Jerusalem was purportedly to put to rest a bit of church politics.
During his brief stay in the Holy City, the pope was scheduled to meet no less than four times with Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, honorary head of the Eastern Orthodox churches. Francis and Bartholomew have both taken steps to end the 1,000-year-old schism that split Rome from most of the eastern churches.
The fourth and climactic meeting between the two spiritual leaders was to be a joint prayer session at the Holy Sepulcher with the various rivalrous Christian factions that inhabit Christianity’s holiest site.