BETHLEHEM (AFP) – Thousands of cheering Roman Catholic pilgrims welcomed Pope Francis to Manger Square in the West Bank city of Bethlehem Sunday, where the pontiff celebrated mass.
Francis rolled into the square standing in a white open-top car with a bullet-proof screen, as local Christians, and others from Europe, Africa and Asia belted out hymns and waved national and Vatican flags.
The main stage set up for the pontiff, who arrived early Sunday by helicopter from Jordan, was flanked by huge Palestinian and Vatican flags, and adorned with a giant tableau depicting Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.
From dawn, wave upon wave of pilgrims shuffled into the buzzing square, through barriers and metal detectors set up by Palestinian security forces as part of a massive security operation.
Francis insisted his three-day visit to the Holy Land, which began in Jordan and ends in Israel on Monday, would be “purely religious,” and observers said he would attempt to avoid the pitfalls of the intractable Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
But in a reminder of the ubiquitous political debate in the volatile region, a banner hanging on a mosque on the square read: “The detainees in the occupation’s (Israeli) prisons are pleading for freedom and dignity.”
And the pope made an unscheduled stop to pray at Israel’s West Bank barrier before reaching the square.
Flanked by anxious Palestinian security guards, he walked over to the eight-metre (26-foot) high concrete barrier topped by a guard tower.
Bowing his head in silent prayer, he paused for several minutes in front of the graffiti-daubed wall, his right hand and forehead resting against the concrete.
“Pope we need to see someone to speak about justice. Bethlehem look like Warsaw ghetto. Free Palestine,” read one bit of graffiti in English.
- ‘Light in the darkness’ -
Pilgrims said they hoped that Francis’s message, even if only spiritual, could bring real change on the ground in a volatile region.
“He’s not going to talk about politics, just spiritual matters,” said Nabil Abu Nicola, who had travelled from Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab town.
“This is better, because a political understanding of this region is very hard. You need to be here for 20 years before you really understand the conflict,” he said.
“In the Galilee, people live together in peace. But the minute politics enters the debate, it immediately divides people, labelling this person an Arab, that person a Jew, and so on,” Abu Nicola said.
Father Dominic Tran, a priest from Vietnam, had travelled specially to attend the mass.
“Our country went through a long, terrible war, and we know what it’s like, so we pray the pope can bring here the spirit of peace on earth,” he said.
Angolan Martins Felisberto, sporting the red, yellow and black colours of his country, hoped the visit would signal a change for persecuted Christians in the Middle East.
“Francis’s coming to Palestine means a lot because you have many Christians in the Arab world who are persecuted,” he said.
“The pope is a symbol of light in the darkness of this region, which is troubled,” said Daniel Bsoul from Nazareth.
“We see the clouds of war in Syria, so there needs to be God’s hand to bring peace,” he said.
Francis is to meet Jewish and Muslim leaders in Jerusalem on Monday in efforts to reach out to other Abrahamic faiths.
Mariel Villalobos, who travelled with her family from Pope Francis’s hometown of Buenos Aires, said she admired the pontiff’s emphasis on inter-faith dialogue.
“Francis is the kind of person who can change things. He called the Jewish people ‘our older brothers,’ which is amazing. You have to respect other religions,” she said.
“He’s unlike other popes in terms of his humanity, and I hope he can bring real change on the ground,” said Ibrahim Handal, a Bethlehem native.
“Through faith, you can move mountains.”