Pope Francis gave symbolic approval to Palestinian hopes for an independent state as he arrived in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Sunday. The pope is on the second day of his Mideast trip, which began Saturday with a stop in Jordan.
Previous popes always visited the West Bank after first arriving at Tel Aviv, Israel, but Francis landed directly in Bethlehem by helicopter and 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.”
Worshipers include Arab Christians and migrant workers from Asia, reports NPR’s Emily Harris for our Newscast desk. Palestinian and Vatican flags decorated the square, and many people wore black and white checked scarves, a symbol of the Palestinian cause, AP says.
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.
The Jerusalem Post says that 3,000 Palestinian security forces were deployed for the pope’s visit.
“His trip has been billed as a “pilgrimage for prayer,” with its roots in faith, not politics.
“But in a region where religion and politics are so closely intertwined, his every remark will take on an added significance.”
Later today, Francis will have lunch with Palestinian families and visit a Palestinian refugee camp, then arrive at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv for a welcome ceremony.
The final event of the pope’s day is a prayer service at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem with the leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians.