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Pope prays at Israel-West Bank separation wall

Published:Monday | May 26, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Pope Francis prays at Israel's separation barrier on his way to a mass in Manger Square next to the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, yesterday. - AP

BETHLEHEM (AP):

In what is being characterised as an unprecedented gesture, Pope Francis stopped to pray at a wall that separates Israel from the West Bank in the city of Bethlehem yesterday.

Francis prayed for four minutes during the unscheduled stop.

He put one hand on the wall and leaned over it, a piece of red graffiti read, "Free Palestine." Silently, Francis also touched the wall with his forehead.

Francis had already made history on this three-day trip to the Middle East. He gave symbolic approval to Palestinian hopes for an independent state by landing directly in Bethlehem yesterday. Previous popes always visited the West Bank after .

After the dramatic stop at the wall, Francis then made another unprecedented call.

"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," he said. "I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer."

According to The Associated Press, the two men accepted and will go to the Vatican next month.The Pope was on the second day of his Mideast trip, which began Saturday with a stop in Jordan.

Met with president

He went directly to a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, The Associated Press reports.

"Jubilant, flag-waving Palestinians greeted Francis in Bethlehem's Manger Square, where he was to celebrate mass on a stage next to the Church of the Nativity, built over Jesus' traditional birth grotto."

Francis is only the fourth pontiff to visit the Holy Land, and will be the first to lay a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism.