BETHLEHEM — Pope Francis on Sunday invited the presidents of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to join him at the Vatican next month to pray together and talk peace. Both leaders accepted his offer, transforming the pontiff into a potentially persuasive advocate for solving one of the world’s most intractable conflicts.
This was a symbolic but potent gesture from a pope who dares to do things differently. Although oddsmakers will probably bet against Francis inducing either side to budge much, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, in one bold stroke, managed to revive flagging peace efforts, after Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s nine-month attempt collapsed in blame and acrimony last month.
A spokesman for Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said the three men would meet at the Vatican on June 6, just a few weeks before Shimon Peres, who is 90, will finish his final term as Israel’s president. Peres’s duties are largely ceremonial, but as a member of the founding generation of Israel, the former three-time prime minister is a respected and relevant figure in Israel.
The 79-year-old Abbas has told diplomats and colleagues recently that he is tired and wants to step away from politics. His term in office technically ended in January 2009, but a schism between political factions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have forestalled elections.
Francis, the youngest of the three at 77, began his job in March 2013, and he seems raring to go — despite having only one lung.
On Sunday, the pontiff proved himself a nimble diplomat, pleasing both Israelis and Palestinians even as he gently pressed them to seek peace and see the human in the other.
In the first such visit by a pope, Francis flew directly into what he called “the state of Palestine,” where he described Abbas as “a peacemaker” and urged leaders on both sides of the Middle East stalemate to show the courage to end “this protracted conflict, which has inflicted many wounds so difficult to heal.” The Palestinians were granted “non-member observer state” status in the United Nations in 2012.
Francis and his entourage flew Sunday in a helicopter from Amman, Jordan, to Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and then drove in an open-top vehicle through the hilly city — where the Bible says Jesus was born, but where the native Christian population has plummeted in a generation.
In the aftermath of the collapse of the U.S.-brokered peace talks, the pope — who began a three-day trip to the Holy Land this weekend — called on Israelis and Palestinians to put an end to a situation “which has become increasingly unacceptable.”
On his way to Manger Square, Francis was driven along a high cement wall, a section of Israel’s separation barrier, which divides the West Bank and Israel. The wall makes travel — for tourists and pilgrims alike — difficult between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, two cities that would be a 10-minute drive apart by car, if not for military checkpoints. Palestinians who wish to enter Israel need a permit.
The pope’s vehicle rolled to a stop along the way, and he stepped down, surrounded by photographers, at a spot prearranged with the Palestinian Authority, for the ultimate photo-op.
Spray-painted on the newly whitewashed wall was graffiti in English: “Pope we need someone to speak about justice,” “Bethlehem looks like Warsaw Ghetto” and “Apartheid wall.”
Francis paused, placed his hand on the wall and prayed.
The separation barrier — built by Israel during the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, in the early 2000s — was designed to reduce terrorist attacks, including a rash of suicide bombings, against the civilian population. The wall now surrounds Bethlehem from three sides.
Later Sunday, Francis left Bethlehem for Tel Aviv, where he was greeted at Israel’s main airport by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Peres and other members of the Israeli government. During an address, the pope expressed sorrow over a Saturday shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels that left four people dead, including two Israelis.
“With a painful heart, I think of those who lost their lives in the terror attack yesterday in Brussels,” the pope said. “I am so opposed to any anti-Semitic manifestation, and, therefore, I implore that this should never happen again, and I wish health and recovery to all the wounded.”
In a nod to the widely held belief that the status quo in the Middle East is unsustainable, the pope told Abbas at a welcome ceremony in Bethlehem: “Even in the absence of violence, the climate of instability and a lack of mutual understanding have produced insecurity, the violation of rights, isolation and the flight of entire communities, conflicts, shortages and sufferings of every sort.”
He urged both sides to refrain from escalating tensions.
The pope then celebrated Mass on the forecourt of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the 6th-century Justinian church built above the cave where Christians believe Jesus was born.
The mood was festive, with Palestinian Boy Scouts assisting in crowd control and a choir singing. The audience waved Palestinian and Vatican flags, but some in the crowd also wore hats and shirts depicting Israeli flags. The worshipers could be heard speaking Arabic, Russian, French, English and Tagalog.
During the Mass, the pope spoke of his concern for children: “All too many children continue to be exploited, maltreated, enslaved, prey to violence and illicit trafficking. Still too many children live in exile, as refugees, at times lost at sea, particularly in the waters of the Mediterranean. Today, in acknowledging this, we feel shame before God, before God who became a child.”
Behind the stage where the Mass was celebrated was a large mural featuring the baby Jesus wrapped in a black checkered Palestinian kaffiyeh, or headdress. Instead of the three wise men, the painting showed the three popes who have visited Bethlehem.
Palestinians said they liked this pontiff and hoped his push for peace will deliver tangible results. “You can just tell that this pope will be more active in the real world,” said Dina Khoury, a small-business owner who brought her daughter to Manger Square. “Of course, he is first and foremost a man of God, but you can see that he likes people, too. Maybe he will do some great things.”
Francis also won some respect from Israelis. “The fact he mentioned and related to the terrible shooting in Brussels — that shows that this man does not turn a blind eye,” said Oded Ben Hur, Israel’s former ambassador to the Vatican. “His people were quick enough to insert it into his speech. That shows great sensitivity.”
On Monday, the pope will place a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl, a founder of the Zionist movement. Francis will also visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum.