BETHLEHEM - Pope Francis on Sunday invited the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to the Vatican, calling the stalemate in peace talks “unacceptable” as he visited the birthplace of Jesus.
On the second leg of a three-day visit to the Middle East, the pontiff delighted his hosts by referring directly to the "state of Palestine" – a nod of support to their bid for full statehood recognition.
Jubilant, flag-waving Palestinians greeted Francis on his pilgrimage, which featured a Mass in Manger Square on a stage next to the Church of the Nativity, built over Jesus' traditional birth grotto.
Giant Palestinian flags in red, white, green and black hanging alongside the Vatican's yellow-and-white flags decorated the square.
Earlier, he stopped to pray at the Israeli separation barrier surrounding the biblical West Bank town.
"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," the Pope said at Mass.
"I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer," Francis said. Asked about the invitation, a spokeswoman for Peres said in Jerusalem that he "always accepts any kind of initiative to promote peace". While Abbas heads the Palestinian government, Peres's presidential post is largely ceremonial.
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 Abbas.
Standing alongside Abbas, Francis declared: "The time has come to put an end to this situation which has become increasingly unacceptable." He said both sides needed to make sacrifices to create two states, with internationally recognized borders, based on mutual security and rights for everyone. "The time has come for everyone to find the courage to be generous and creative in the service of the common good," he said.
Andrew Medichini / Pool via AP
Pope Francis is welcomed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, left, upon his arrival to the West Bank city of Bethlehem, May 25, 2014.
Bethlehem is surrounded on three sides by Israel's separation barrier. Israel says the barrier is a necessary security measure. But the Palestinians say it has engulfed land across the West Bank and stifled life in Bethlehem. After meeting Abbas, Francis' stepped out of his open-air vehicle to inspect the massive concrete structure. Francis spent a few minutes at the wall, surrounded by Palestinians waving Vatican flags and taking pictures with their cell-phones, and then boarded his open-topped car the rest of the ride to Manger Square.
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 Vatican echoed the acknowledgement at the time, but the Pope’s explicit reference to “the state of Palestine” while on a regional visit inevitably shrouded in politics – is bound to attract attention, particularly in Israel.
However, during his visit to Israel Pope Francis is scheduled to place a wreath on the tomb of Zionist leader Theodor Herzl, who unsuccessfully petitioned the Vatican for the creation of a Jewish state at the turn of the 20th century.
Although the Pope had insisted his visit was religious, his comments show he is clearly not afraid to step into the political realm.
After Mass, the Pope was expected to lunch with Palestinian families and visit a Palestinian refugee camp before arriving at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport for a welcome ceremony.
His final event of the day was expected to be a prayer service with the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.
NBC News’ Lawahez Jabari and Clare Duffy, and The Associated Press, contributed to this report. Alastair Jamieson reported from London.
First published May 25 2014, 3:04 AM