In Bethlehem speech, Pope Francis calls for end to conflict

Ben Sales

(JTA) — In his first visit to the region since becoming pope, Pope Francis referred to the “state of Palestine” and called for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

After visiting Jordan on Saturday, the pope held a mass Sunday at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. He will travel to Israel later in the day.

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The pope made several endorsements of Palestinian national aspirations. He referred to the “state of Palestine” in a speech alongside Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and stopped for a prayer alongside Israel’s security barrier in Bethlehem, according to Maan News, a Palestinian wire service. Pope Francis’ visit also marks the first time a pope has entered the Palestinian Authority without first stopping in Israel.

“I wish to state my heartfelt conviction that the time has come to put an end to this situation which has become increasingly unacceptable,” the pope said in his Bethlehem speech, according to reports. “For the good of all, there is a need to intensify efforts and initiatives aimed at creating the conditions for a stable peace based on justice, on the recognition of the rights of every individual, and on mutual security.”

In Israel, the pope will visit Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, as well as several holy sites in Jerusalem — including the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Cenacle in Jerusalem, the traditional site of Jesus’ Last Supper.  Jews consider the site to be King David’s burial place. He will leave Israel on Monday.

The Israel Police have arrested 26 Jewish nationalists preparing to protest the pope’s visit to the Cenacle, according to Haaretz.

In advance of the pope’s visit, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed Francis and said his visit highlights Israel’s commitment to religious freedom.

“His visit here is an opportunity to show the world the true Israel, the advanced, modern and tolerant Israel, in effect, the only country in the Middle East that ensures complete freedom of worship to those of all faiths, guards the holy places and ensures the rights of all – Jews, Muslims, Christians, everybody,” Netanyahu said in a speech to his cabinet Sunday.