BETHLEHEM, West Bank – Pope Francis landed Sunday in the West Bank town of Bethlehem in a symbolic nod to Palestinian aspirations for their own state as he began a busy second day of his Mideast pilgrimage.
Previous popes always came to the West Bank after first arriving in Tel Aviv, Israel. Francis, however, landed at a Bethlehem helipad from Jordan aboard a Jordanian helicopter and immediately headed into an official welcoming ceremony and meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
In its official program, the Vatican referred to Abbas as the president of the “state of Palestine.”
“The fact that he is coming straight from Jordan to Bethlehem, without going through Israel,” is a tacit recognition of a Palestinian state, said Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian Christian who is a senior official in the Palestine Liberation Organization.
In November 2012, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly recognized a “state of Palestine” in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem – lands Israel captured in the 1967 war – as a non-member observer. The recognition still has little meaning on the ground, with Israel remaining in full control of east Jerusalem, which it annexed in 1967, and the West Bank.
However, it has enabled the Palestinians to start seeking membership in U.N. agencies and accede to international conventions in a further upgrade of their status.
Francis is expected to press the Vatican’s call for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during his meeting with Abbas and later, upon arrival in Israel.
Early Sunday, police arrested 26 Israelis for throwing stones at police officers and causing disturbances at a Jerusalem holy site where the Pope will celebrate Mass at the end of his trip, Israeli police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said.
Rosenfeld said 150 religious Jews demonstrated at the holy site to protest rumors that Israel will transfer control of the site to the Vatican. According to Catholic tradition, the site marks the Last Supper of Jesus. But devout Jews believe the biblical King David is buried there, and they protest Christian prayer at the site.