Music, Smiles and Palestinian flags greet Pope in Bethlehem
(CNN) — Pope Francis called for the recognition of a Palestinian state during his visit to Bethlehem on the West Bank on Sunday. But he made the same demand on behalf of state of Israel.
Francis called for “the acknowledgment by all of the right of two States to exist and to live in peace and security within internationally recognized borders.”
Standing next to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, he referred to the territories 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 told Abbas at a press conference.
But he also called on all sides to adhere to pursue a path to peace together and not take unilateral actions to disrupt it.
“I can only express my profound hope that all will refrain from initiatives and actions which contradict the stated desire to reach a true agreement, and that peace will be pursued with tireless determination and tenacity.”
The government of Israel has objected to unilateral initiatives by Palestinians to seek international recognition as a state, and Palestinians have objected to Israeli initiatives to expand settlements on the West Bank.
Palestinian leaders have also traditionally refused to recognize the existence of the Jewish state.
Francis alluded to Bethlehem as the biblical birthplace of Jesus, who he called the Prince of Peace then called on Abbas to protect the religious rights of Palestinian Catholics.
The Vatican has expressed concern over the emigration of Palestinian Christians.
He also took a stand for the poor, suffering under tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.
“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 said.
After meeting with Abbas, Pope Francis cruised in the pope-mobile through a crowd of hundreds of Catholic faithful and onlookers gathered in Manger Square, where they awaited a papal Mass.
Priests and the faithful swayed to the tune of religious music, while many waved red, green, black and white Palestinian flags and others yellow and white Vatican flags.
The pope hopped off the pope-mobile to shake hands with people in the crowd.
While in Bethlehem, Frances will greet children from refugee camps, lunch with Palestinian families and visit the site of Jesus’ birth.
Later, in Jerusalem, Pope Francis will meet with Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.
He will also meet the city’s grand mufti and chief rabbis, visit the Western Wall and Yad Vashem, a memorial to the Holocaust, and lay a wreath on the grave of the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl. He will also celebrate Mass at the site of the Last Supper.
Francis will meet with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres while in Jerusalem.
A day earlier, Pope Francis celebrated Mass in Amman, Jordan, at a stadium on the first leg of a Holy Land trip intended to promote a message of unity. The pontiff is traveling with a rabbi and a Muslim Sheikh, with whom he has longstanding friendships.
His trip has been billed as a “pilgrimage for prayer,” with its roots in faith, not politics.
But in a region where religion and politics are so closely intertwined, his every remark will take on an added significance.
The Holy Land trip, also taking in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, is the first for Francis as leader of the Roman Catholic Church, and just the fourth for any pontiff in the modern era.
Thousands of believers packed the International Stadium in Amman for the Mass in what is a majority Muslim nation with a significant Christian community. Many cheered and waved as the Pope arrived.
In his homily, Francis spoke of the need for tolerance and diversity, and urged everyone to put aside grievances and divisions.
“The mission of the Holy Spirit is to beget harmony … and to create peace in different situations and between different people,” he said.
“Let us ask the Spirit to prepare our hearts to encounter our brothers and sisters so that we may overcome our differences rooted in political thinking, language, culture and religion.”
Christian refugees from Syria, Iraq and the Palestinian territories were among those present, and 1,400 children received their First Communion at the Mass.
Small groups of cheering supporters earlier lined the road, waving flags and chanting “Long live the Pope” as Francis’ motorcade left the airport in Amman at the start of his three-day visit to the region.
The Pope’s first stop was at al-Husseini Royal Palace in Amman, where he met with Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
In televised remarks after that meeting, Francis paid tribute to Jordan’s efforts to promote interfaith tolerance and to the welcome that the small nation has given to Palestinian refugees and, more recently, those fleeing war-torn Syria.
Francis said it was “necessary and urgent” that a peaceful solution was found to the crisis in Syria.
He also called for a “right solution with regard to the situation between Israel and the Palestinians.” Middle East peace talks recently stalled despite high-profile efforts by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to push them forward.
“I grasp this opportunity to renew my esteem and respect for the Muslim community and show my appreciation for the work carried out by his Majesty the King, which is promoting further understanding between peoples of different faith and communities of different faith,” Francis said.
His visit marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark meeting between Pope Paul VI and the then-spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Patriarch Athenagoras, in Jerusalem.
While in Jordan, Francis will greet some of the 600,000 Syrians that have fled since the start of the civil war in 2011 as well as refugees from Iraq. He will also visit the River Jordan, where many Christians believe Jesus was baptized.
Accompanying Francis on his trip are Rabbi Abraham Skorka, who co-wrote a book with the pontiff, and Sheikh Omar Abboud, who leads Argentina’s Muslim community.
The religion of the Pope’s traveling companions, both of whom hail from his home country, Argentina, is no coincidence.
“It’s highly symbolic, of course,” said the Rev. Thomas Rosica, a consultant to the Vatican press office.
“But it also sends a pragmatic message to Muslims, Christians and Jews that it’s possible to work together — not as a system of checks and balances but as friends.”
By Ben Brumfield and Laura Smith-Spark
CNN’s Delia Gallagher contributed to this report.