In One Photo, the Pope Does What Many World Leaders Haven't Had the Guts For


It is a picture that's likely to become one of the most emblematic of Pope Francis' first trip to the Holy Land. Head bowed in prayer, the leader of the Catholic church rested his forehead against the graffiti-covered concrete structure that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem, as a young Palestinian girl looked on by his side. His palm was also pressed against a spot where someone sprayed in red paint "Free Palestine," while other graffiti in broken English reading, "Bethlehem look like Warsaw Ghetto" was painted above his head.

Making headlines across the globe, this powerful gesture is a silent statement against the controversial, but tangible symbol of division and conflict that many international leaders have failed to make.

The barrier that weaves through the West Bank was built by Israel a decade ago as a "security fence" to protect its citizens from attack. Palestinians, however, denounce it as a land grab.

Pope Francis stopped his motorcade alongside the wall, near Rachel's Tomb outside Bethlehem, between scheduled events to step out and pray at the massive separation barrier.

"I was not informed [of his plans to stop]. It was planned by him the day before," said Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi. "It was a very significant way to demonstrate his participation in suffering. It was a profound spiritual moment in front of a symbol of division."

The pontiff's three-day visit to the Holy Land and surprising, unscheduled prayer at the barrier also comes just weeks after U.S.-backed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians broke down again. During the trip, Pope Francis also made an appeal to both sides to overcome their differences and end the conflict that he said was "increasingly unacceptable."

"For decades the Middle East has known the tragic consequences of a protracted conflict which has inflicted many wounds so difficult to heal," said Pope Francis. "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."

In addition to the unprecedented gesture, Palestinian officials have also said the pontiff's decision to travel directly to the West Bank, rather than through Israel, is a recognition of their push for full statehood.

Referring directly to "the state of Palestine," the pontiff also made another unprecedented call by inviting President Mahmoud Abbas and President Shimon Peres to Rome.

"In this, the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, I wish to invite you, President Mahmoud Abbas, together with President Shimon Peres, to join me in heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace," Pope Francis said at the open-air Mass in Bethlehem.

According to their respective staff, they both accepted and will go to the Vatican next month.